UConn professor seeks to turn grease into fuel

11/24/2012 9:15 PM
By Associated Press

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — A year ago, Richard Parnas had never heard of brown grease: sticky, stinky, remnants of sludge sucked from grease traps at restaurants, bars and commercial kitchens. The glop for years has been considered useless, a common clog-inducer at sewage treatment plants, often burned as costly waste.

Parnas immediately saw the potential, one that he hopes could change the fuel industry and improve the environment. If he is correct, the University of Connecticut professor's vision also could make him and his partners wealthy.

Parnas can turn brown grease into biodiesel fuel.

The vehicle for this chemical engineer's dreams of environmental revolution is RPM Sustainable Technologies, a company Parnas founded with two partners, Fred Robson and Richard Madrak, to break into the national biodiesel market. At the moment, the company's base is a lab at the edge of the UConn campus, where a metal machine of large tanks and gurgling tubes transforms grease into fuel.

This spring, a machine just like it will be hooked up to the Torrington wastewater treatment plant, a designated "FOG" facility, or one that accepts the region's fats, oils and grease. The city agreed to serve as temporary sales model for Parnas, whose plan is to sell his equipment, and its maintenance, to municipalities, universities or anyone interested in making biodiesel. UConn is currently using the biodiesel Parnas creates to run its campus shuttle buses.

The machinery and the chemistry it encourages inside can make any common source into biodiesel. Parnas, however, is pushing brown grease, because he strongly believes that potential food sources such as soybean and corn should be used to feed the world, and not run cars and buses. Also, the putrid grease, laden with heavy metals, exists as an environmental hazard, he said.

Turning it into biodiesel changes a problem into an asset, something that can run your Volkswagen instead of being burned or buried in a landfill. Torrington spends $9,000 a year burning its brown grease in Waterbury. "You just blow all those heavy metals out into the air," Parnas said. "We will have a much bigger impact on the environmental problem than on the fuels market. We will convert the environmental problem into a high quality fuel that will be worth money."

Customers will buy the machinery and then own the biodiesel they produce. Parnas said he could not provide what the machinery could cost; the company is too new, he said, and it might depend on size and orders. There are projects in the works, he said.

On a recent afternoon at the lab, two doctoral students in lab coats hurried about the machine, responding to beeping alarms and emptying buckets of glycerol, a byproduct of the process. The prototype pumped out one gallon of biodiesel every four minutes, in one session making enough to propel a diesel Volkswagen Jetta about 40 miles.

The doctoral students, Iman Noshadi of Iran and Baishali Kanjilal of India, are researching further uses of the glycerol byproduct. Noshadi said it is worth maybe 50 cents a gallon as a raw chemical but with further research and chemistry it can be turned into high value chemicals used in labs that sell for between $3,000 and $5,000 a gallon. He said with their research they want to create a process where there is no waste.

"The chemistry itself is 100 years old," Parnas said. "The engineering of the process is very new."

The recent demonstration at UConn used waste vegetable oil from the school's dining facility. The raw used French fry oil was pumped in one end of a labyrinth of holding tanks, pumps, and pipes and finally through a reactor where biodiesel is separated from the glycerol using gravity and a technology Parnas says is proprietary and therefore a secret.

Biodiesel flows out the top, because it is lighter, and glycerol is expelled from the bottom of the 6-foot-long cylindrical aluminum reactor mounted at a 45 degree angle.

Parnas said he couldn't provide specific details of what happens in the various tanks and the tubular reactor because of trade secrets. He said methanol with an acid catalyst is added at the beginning of the process, then removed, and methanol with a base is added near the end to finish the biodiesel.

About half of what goes in is turned into biodiesel. Once the machinery is set up the process is mostly automated and would take minimal work to keep going, he said. "It would be very easy to go into a wastewater treatment plant and make 100,000 gallons of biodiesel a year from their brown grease," Parnas said. "It is a very significant commercial opportunity."

Parnas said biodiesel from brown grease should help with the problem of too little feed stock in the growing renewable fuel market.

The shortage has led producers to go directly to the source of vegetable oil — food — for the supply. Corn, sugarcane, soy beans and even macadamia nuts have been used to make the fuel, Parnas said.

Parnas said that is the wrong approach.

"We absolutely do not want to take any food and make fuel," he said. "That is utterly wrong."

Citing the ethanol industry that uses corn to create ethanol, which is now added to gasoline, Parnas noted that has driven up the cost of corn and reduced the supply of food.

Unlike ethanol, which is mostly made from corn and has only a slight energy return, biodiesel is much more efficient, Parnas said. In its very least efficient method of production, using soy beans, a gallon of biodiesel contains 3.5 times as much energy as required to make it, Parnas said. If it is made from waste oils the energy return jumps to a factor of 15 or 20 times of what it takes for production.

"Biodiesel is a really awesome fuel," he said.


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