Engineering students construct 200 ℓ/d biodiesel plant

21st September 2012 By: Chantelle Kotze

The University of the Witwatersrand’s (Wits’) Engineers Without Borders – Wits student society started construction of a small-scale biodiesel plant this month.

Wits third year chemical engineering student Robert Louw and numerous other engineering students have been researching small-scale biodiesel production since March 2010.

The group, which built its first biodiesel pilot plant at the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering building at Wits in mid-2011, has received the R20 000 in funding it required to construct the small-scale plant at the recycling station on the university’s West campus.

Biodiesel will be produced from the waste cooking oil that is generated on campus by using a process that was developed and tested by hobbyists in an open- -source online community, explains Louw.

“We are partnering with the university’s waste disposal contractor, Oricol Environmental Service successfully, to establish our biodiesel plant,” he explains.

Oricol provides the funding, chemicals and labour, as well as the health and safety expertise needed for the project, while the students provide the knowledge and expertise needed for the production of the biodiesel, says Oricol Environmental Services projects supervisor Ross Arde.

The biodiesel produced will be used by Oricol to power some of its light-duty campus vehicles.

The waste disposal contractor, which prides itself on finding solutions for various waste streams and turning waste into a resource, will be able to achieve this with the help of the student society.

Further, the company will learn more about the biofuels production process, as it is a new area of business for the company to explore and possibly use at other waste sites, says Arde.

The 200 /d capacity biodiesel plant will initially produce about 200 of biodiesel a month. This will later be ramped up to 1 000 ℓ a month to obtain up to 0.9 of biodiesel from every litre of waste cooking oil, says Louw, adding that the student organisation hopes to turn most, if not all, of the cooking oil from the campus into fuel.

Once production has been ramped up, the Oricol staff will be trained on-site by the students in how to manage the project, enabling the students to concentrate on their studies, says Arde.

The profits generated from selling the biodiesel to the university’s waste disposal contractor will go towards a bursary to study engineering at Wits.

“If all goes well, we should have enough money to pay for one student’s class fees each year. Eventually, we would like to see other South African universities following suit and develop- ing plants of their own,” says Louw.

The students believe that biodiesel production is the best way to reuse waste cooking oil in high-density populations or closely knit communities, as it is easy to collect amounts that are large enough to justify investment in biodiesel production.