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Closing the Loop on Sustainable Energy

September 27, 2013

biofuels canolaFinding a relationship between a farm in Yadkin County, two chemists at Wake Forest University, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools’ Career Center, and renewable biofuels may initially seem challenging, but an interdisciplinary team of educators and scientists saw opportunity in collaboration. Ultimately, through the concerted efforts of the collaborative team and the Wake Forest Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability (CEES), the WSFC Career Center was able to launch a biodiesel refining program, which gives students hands-on experience learning about and making biofuels and reducing carbon emissions.

So, how did they get there?

The Career Center, an extension of the WSFC school system that provides advanced and career-based classes, had a strong interest in integrating sustainability into the curriculum. With this motivation, the educators at the Career Center began working with Abdou Lachgar, a professor of chemistry and CEES associate director, to bring biofuel technology to the school. With funding from CEES and the school system, the Career Center was able to obtain a biodiesel reactor.

As this was happening, another team was working on their own piece of the puzzle.

Dave Lutz, a former CEES postdoctoral fellow and current researcher at Dartmouth College, and Mike Long, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, were developing a plan to convert former tobacco fields at the JD Long Institute Farm in Yadkin Co. into canola, a crop ideally suited to producing oil ready for conversion into biodiesel. Through a grant from CEES, Lutz and Long were able to get the field converted and in operation in 2011. With the harvest came a supply of canola ready for pressing into oil. Converting the canola oil directly to biofuel, however, removes the food-grade oil from the food supply.

The third piece of the puzzle fell into place with the WFU CEES biodiesel research group.

For the past 7 years, Abdou Lachgar and Marcus Wright, another CEES faculty affiliate, have worked on developing a way to convert used cooking oil, which is inconsistent and difficult to work with, into a product that is easy to refine into biodiesel. Their research has led to the development of a catalyst that carries out this process, marking a huge step forward in the commercial viability of the conversion of waste oil into biodiesel.

With this link in place, the loop from field to fuel began to close.

Canola grown at the JD Long Institute is pressed into food-grade oil and provided to area restaurants for use in cooking with one stipulation: the oil is to be returned to the Career Center for processing. There, the waste oil is refined into a consistent product using the catalyst developed by the biodiesel research group and then further refined into biodiesel. The finished biodiesel is then distributed to the JD Long Institute  and the WSFC Schools. This nearly carbon-neutral fuel supply allows activity buses, farming equipment, and vehicles to operate with minimal impact on the environment. And, if that was not enough, the waste solids from the process of pressing the canola make an excellent livestock feed which is sent back to the JD Long Institute Farm.

In short, the partnership of WFU faculty, CEES, and the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools has created a program that contributes to the food supply, creates biofuels that greatly reduce carbon emissions, and repurposes almost all of its waste products for integration back into the process – a win-win-win-win.

By Maxwell Messinger