College-used oil fueling downtown

Gas and fries have never been this closely connected, until now. Cooking oil, after it is used in McKinley’s to make ever popular French fries and chicken patties, is being converted into biodiesel to power Meadville construction vehicles.

Allegheny College signed a contract with the City of Meadville stating that used cooking oil will stay local. The oil is converted to useable biodiesel just outside of town for about 85 cents a gallon. According to Meadville City Manager, Joe Chriest, it is used in everything from Meadville’s lawn mowers to the skid steers.

The first collection of the campus’ used oil occurred on March 3 at 1:30 p.m. The variety of people who were there showed that this event was significant and a milestone for Meadville. In attendance were Meadville Mayor, Christopher Soff; Parkhurst Dining Services director, Scott Steiner; sustainability coordinator, Kelly Boulton; and professor of Environmental Science, Richard Bowden. Media sources documenting the event were Erie Times News, WJET-TV, and the Meadville Tribune.

The campus-community alliance seems to be popular with everyone involved.

“I mentioned the event, and the partnership with Allegheny, at Wednesday’s meeting and everyone was thrilled with the future prospects,” Soff said.
“This alternative energy source has brought Allegheny College, Parkhurst, and the City of Meadville closer together,” Steiner said. I am proud to be a part of this great effort.”

Allegheny’s partnership with the city may end up with a greater outcome than anticipated. The use of cooking oil has gone up and the amount of waste oil is proportional.

“[They] picked up a small batch on Friday simply because we accumulated at McKinley’s more quickly than expected and didn’t want to be fighting overflow before Wednesday,” Boulton said.

The intent of the partnership is to teach students about the benefits of biofuels and to help the campus become more environmentally aware. According to Boulton, student involvement will improve the success of the affiliation between city and campus.

Student trips to see firsthand how biodiesel is processed or burning the fuel on campus may raise awareness and increase student knowledge on the effects of clean fuel. Bowden supported the idea and wanted to get students involved.

Professor Christopher Shaffer’s Environmental Mapping course has been involved with the biodiesel project since the beginning.
Andrew Pfeifer, ’10, is a member of the class.

“It’s a project that has been in development for a while now, and it’s great to see the college getting on board,” Pfeifer said. “We’re working on creating the most efficient pick-up route for all of the participating establishments. While learning how to model transportation networks, we are providing a service for the Meadville Streets & Parks Department.”

Other studies have been done to potentially minimize Meadville’s environmental impact and make the city locally sustainable by avoiding importation of petroleum-based fuel.

Bowden led a study with Allegheny students which concluded Meadville could save a total of $20,000 if biodiesel production included used cooking oil from all area restaurants. Just adding cooking oil from Allegheny is expected to increase current fuel production by nearly 1,000 gallons.

Rather than purchase unsustainable, petroleum-based fuel, biodiesel can be produced for a fraction of the cost and it is “clean burning”, creating less environmental impact. Also according to the National Biodiesel Board (NBB), “Biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to have fully completed the health effects testing requirements of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.”
Biofuel, in the conversion from vegetable oil, must undergo a purification process and meet the proper standards set up by the Environmental Protection Agency. The industry is strict in order to ensure the best performance.

“Raw vegetable oil cannot meet biodiesel fuel specifications, it is not registered with the EPA, and it is not a legal motor fuel,” according to the NBB.

Once converted, biodiesel can be used in all regular diesel engines. The byproduct of the chemical process, glycerin, is valuable in other industries and can be resold as a key ingredient in soap products.

“Utilizing our food waste oil for fueling city vehicles is an example of [our] commitment to remain on the cutting edge of Sustainable Technologies; not only for the benefit of Allegheny College, but the community at large,” Steiner said.

The movement toward sustainability is a hot topic on the Allegheny campus with the addition of new LEED certified buildings and use of biofuels. Even students who are not ES majors can be directly involved in the green movement. Everyone contributes, not by taking an Environmental Science class but simply by going to McKinley’s and picking up an order of fries.