The Daily Gamecock

University converting cooking oil into biodiesel

Program aims to offset fuel cost, turn profit

Thanks to two grants worth a combined $89,090, USC's Sustainable Carolina program now has the ability to turn all that greasy oil from Chicken Finger Wednesday into diesel fuel.

Tom Syfert, associate vice president for Environmental Health and Safety and Risk Management, and his team worked diligently for two years to get the money from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Environmental Protection Agency to start a completely sustainable biodiesel fuel program at USC dubbed Gamecock Biofuel.

On its surface, the process of turning vegetable oil from lunch to biodiesel is surprising easy.

Gamecock Biofuel has a specialized trailer where the team simply heats up the oil, adds a few chemicals and then waits for it to separate into two layers. The top layer is the fuel, and the bottom layer is glycerin, which the team uses to make soap.

The fuel costs $2 per gallon to make, and Syfert hopes to sell it for an extra dollar — a total of $3 per gallon, which is cheaper than the current market price for diesel (currently $3.987 in South Carolina, according to AAA). Syfert's goal, he said, is that the margin will generate enough profit to pay the students and volunteers working on the project.

"Our goal is to make 5,000 gallons per year so that if we use 5,000 gallons and if we sell it for $3 that would save us $5,000 a year in fuel charges," Syfert said. "It also reduces [USC's] footprint to the equivalent of 20,000 pounds of carbon. It would save us money and reduce the amount of carbon we put out."

The team is made up of eight members, primarily students enrolled in a sustainable projects class, according to fourth-year environmental science student Sydney Chan.

"We've made four different batches so far, and right now we're working to perfect batch four," Chan said. "It's our best so far. We're going to run it through our F-350 truck next week to see if it works.

"If it doesn't work, I think the car will just stall. The engine shouldn't blow up or anything. Let's hope not, because I'm going to be there."

The team has two options for its fuel, Syfert said.

The first choice is to use a mixture of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular diesel; the second is the opposite — an 80 percent biodiesel and 20 percent regular diesel combination.

Gamecock Biofuel uses the first option because using too much biodiesel in fuel can act as a corrosive and eat away at rubber hoses.

Syfert and his team have closed a deal with the landscaping contractors who service the university's athletic facilities, including the baseball and football fields. The companies have agreed to purchase USC's homemade biofuel to run in their equipment, Syfert said.

USC's shuttle buses are also being included in Gamecock Biofuel's future, and the program hopes to eventually increase the percentage of biofuel the university presently uses in its equipment and buses from 5 percent to the 20-percent mix the team is producing.

In spite of the program's perks, Gamecock Biofuel participant and fourth-year civil engineering student Michael Berry doesn't believe biodiesel will garner mainstream appeal nationwide.

"Optimistically, yes, biodiesel [will spread across the country], but realistically, my answer might be no," Berry said. "Because our economy circles so much around petroleum, I doubt that biodiesel will catch on completely. In the long run, maybe, but to be the dominate supply of fuel in the United States, I'd say no."

Berry took the sustainable project course as an elective, but he said the experience has become more valuable than that.

"It's been a blast. It's by far one of my most fun classes," he said. "It's inspired me to think more about the environment. I'd say it has opened my eyes to the future of more green fuels that could be used in my daily life."