Bringing biodiesel to BHSU

Nick Pappas, a student at Black Hills State University, is spearheading a project that could lead to biofuels being used in facility service vehicles on campus. Pioneer photo by Alex Portal

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SPEARFISH — A local senior at Black Hills State University is pioneering the use of biodiesel fuel on campus.

“The idea is to take the cooking oil from A’viands cafeteria, convert it to biodiesel, and then use it to power facilities equipment,” said Nick Pappas, of Spearfish, who is majoring in environmental science with a minor in business.

Pappas, who works as a firefighter for the state in Rapid City, said the idea of converting cooking oil waste into biodiesel first entered his mind while on his high school debate team in New Jersey.

“We debated alternative fuels,” He said. “Then I picked my senior project to create small quantities of biodiesel from the cafeteria.”

Although Pappas said he’ll always be a career firefighter, he wanted to study at BHSU to further his environmental interests.

“I got involved in (BHSU’s) sustainability program as an intern,” he said. “This was an idea that I wanted to pick up where I left off in high school and do here at the university.”

Pappas explained that there are two methods to using biofuels in diesel engines; one is to convert the engine itself to run on virgin cooking oil, the other is to convert the used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel, which can run in any standard diesel engine with little to no modifications. He chose to focus on the latter, and started experimenting with his biodiesel idea along with fellow student and member of the environmental sustainability student organization, Liam Porter on the proper mixture of triglycerides (oil), alcohols, and a catalyst.

“(The catalyst) could be sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide,” Pappas explained. “We’ve used them both, and we have pros and cons for both of those things. That’s kind of been our experiment.”

Pappas said the process for converting waste cooking oil into fuel is a relatively simple one.

“I’ve taken a year of chemistry, I passed with flying C’s,” he said with a laugh. “So you do not have to be a chemist to know this stuff. It’s kind of like baking a cake; you have a recipe. Follow the recipe.”

The major factor in converting waste cooking oil into workable biodiesel fuel, Pappas said, is setting the catalyst mixture based on the quality of the oil you’re starting out with.

“Each batch of cooking oil might be a little bit different in terms of purity,” he said. “So something that’s maybe a little bit dirtier might need a higher quantity of catalyst.”

One of the terms of the experiment Pappas and Porter are working on is to optimize the purity of the oil they use in their mixture to ensure a reliable and constant performance from their end product.

“That’s going to impact the quality of our fuel,” he said. “If we had money allocated for this project and space to do the experiment it would be a lot easier.”

Though biodiesel emits less greenhouse gas as it’s burned than regular diesel, Pappas explained that it’s not without its own waste product. The reaction that converts the mixture of triglyceride and alcohol into biodiesel also creates glycerin. 

“We decided that in the vision of the project it would be cool to take that glycerin and turn it into soap,” he said. “We’ve probably made five to seven small batches of soap.”

The biggest hurdle for the project has been convincing the university to allow Pappas to use his biodiesel fuel in facility services equipment. 

“One thing that seems to be true across the board is that it adds extra lubricity to your engine,” Pappas said. “My idea to get our foot in the door with it is think of (biodiesel) as an additive first.”

Many diesel fuel engine manufacturers allow for a 5-10% mixture of biodiesel fuel in their products without voiding the warranty, however Pappas said there’s another issue that could arise, which is unique to areas like the Black Hills.

“One hundred percent biodiesel, you would expect that to gel really quickly in colder regions of the country,” he said. “There could potentially be an additive to solve that issue down the road.”

Pappas said the single best option would be to send a sample of his fuel to an American Society for Testing and Materials facility to test the quality of it.

“That might give some confidence to the mechanics,” he said.

Coupling his interest in environmentalism with his savvy business acumen, Pappas said he views sustainability from a “smart capitalist perspective.”

“Love saving trees, love the environment, clean water, clean air; all about it,” he said. “But I think a lot of this is just smart capitalism; taking what was once a waste, turning it into a raw material for a potential business, or a cost avoidance strategy. I think it’s an awesome model to take waste and give it another life and another purpose.”

Pappas hopes he and his partner, Porter, can increase awareness of the project as a potential model for universities across the country not just as a cost reducer for the institution, but as part of the curriculum as well.

“As an academic institution, I think it’s a good place for these types of experiments to take place whether they’re successful or not,” he said. “It’s a good place for students to discover and get their hands on something, which is why I see it as a great potential as a class that can either be integrated into other classes or a class that stands alone.”

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