Erik Fyfe 06C created a biofuel program now used to power Emory‘s shuttles.



Get on the Biodiesel Bus

Here’s an unlikely riddle: What do Emory, a Seattle grunge band, and an aging country crooner have in common? Biodiesel fuel.

Pearl Jam, Willie Nelson, and half of Emory’s shuttle fleet are using cleaner, greener biodiesel in their buses.

Made from vegetable oil or animal fats, biodiesel fuel is becoming an environmentally friendly alternative to gas-guzzling vehicles and high levels of carbon dioxide emissions.

Of Emory’s fifty-six Cliff shuttles, twenty-four are using a biodiesel blend made from recycled cooking oil. (The remainder of the fleet is fueled by either compressed natural gas or electricity.) Emory currently uses a “B20” blend—20 percent biodiesel, and 80 percent diesel.

“Cooking oil used to feed students is now taking them around campus,” says Laura Ray, associate vice president of transportation and parking. “All the cooking oil we need right now is in a ten-mile radius of campus.”

The program, she says, evolved from a student’s vision. Erik Fyfe 06C, an environmental studies major, proposed the idea after designing a research project for the course Introduction to Biofuels.

“I wanted to do something applicable to real life, and I hit upon creating and using biofuel from waste products here on campus,” says Fyfe, who is now a ReFuel program project coordinator for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), Emory’s partner in the biodiesel program. “The next thing I know, I’m the one pumping the fuel.”

On a recent evening, Fyfe was hanging out at the SACE biodiesel refueling station in Decatur near the East Lake MARTA station. He had just changed the fuel filter in the tanker truck that holds 3,700 gallons of biodiesel—and runs on a 60 percent blend itself. “Because biodiesel has solvent properties, it actually cleans out fuel tanks and lines, so you have to change your fuel filters more often,” he says.

The station, conceived of by SACE’s Rob Del Bueno, has a stand-alone biodiesel refueling pump that is available around the clock, likened to an “ATM for bio-diesel” by Atlanta’s Creative Loafing newspaper. Any diesel engine can run on biodiesel, says Fyfe, which is “really easy to make in your backyard. You can make it in a two-liter bottle.”

He demonstrates by pulling out jars filled with cooking oil (“UFO”—used frying oil—or “yellow grease,” as it’s known in the field) to show how the oil is filtered to remove food particles, mixed with catalysts, heated, “washed” with chemicals or water, and transformed into fuel.

Engines and vehicles that run on biofuels are not new ideas. German engineer Rudolf Diesel, who invented the diesel engine in 1892, intended it to use a variety of fuels. He demonstrated the engine at the 1900 World’s Fair using peanut oil.

Biodiesel is domestic, biodegradable, nontoxic, and results in about 78 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions. It also takes less energy to make than traditional fuel—especially biodiesel made from used cooking oil. And here’s the best part: sometimes the emissions literally smell like French fries.

Emory consumes approximately 2,500 gallons of biodiesel fuel per week.

“The biodiesel program fits squarely within Emory’s goals for sustainability,” says Ciannat Howett 87C, director of sustainability initiatives. “Emory is seeking ways to reduce waste, lower air pollution emissions, and improve energy efficiency.”

Fyfe would like to see the program expand, at the University and beyond. SACE estimates that about five million gallons of used cooking oil are produced annually in Atlanta—a volume that could, for example, produce enough biofuel to fill more than half of metro-Atlanta schools’ total diesel demands.

“Georgia exported 75 percent of the biodiesel it produced last year. We have trouble distributing in a state with no retail locations,” he says. “Emory’s program is seeding the market. Now demand just needs to grow.”—M.J.L.

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