Biodiesel refinery designers aim
for more than a well-made product © May 28, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Senior engineers [left to right] Troy Hardtke, Eric Tallent and Jimmy Gracia work on the final details of a biodiesel refinement system they've been perfecting for the 2009/10 academic year.

photo by David W. SmithSenior engineers [left to right] Troy Hardtke, Eric Tallent and Jimmy Gracia work on the final details of a biodiesel refinement system they have been perfecting during the 2009/10 academic year.

Three mechanical engineers spent their final weeks of college in a laboratory, trying to recall how to conduct an effective chemistry experiment.

Senior Troy Hardtke set up a pipette to drip a solution of sodium hydroxide, methanol and other additives into a beaker of filtered, used cooking oil from the campus dining hall. Inside the beaker rested an electrode that measures acidity and electrochemical voltage. As the oil gradually grew clearer—eventually pink when acidity reached the desired level—students recorded regular readings. It was a process called titration, and they were using it to determine precisely how much of the additives were necessary to refine the oil into biodiesel fuel.

“We did some of this sort of stuff as freshmen,” said Eric Tallent, a senior and one of the creators of a biodiesel refinement system that has involved students and professors from several of Norwich University’s academic departments. “It’s kind of a relearning process.”

I think every engineer should have some entrepreneurial savvy.

~ Jimmy Gracia,
Mechanical engineering graduate

Their product is a self-contained refinery that will allow anyone to turn used vegetable oil into fuel of sufficient quality to run a diesel engine or vehicle. They believe it is a unique and marketable product, and have spent the academic year working on it under Norwich’s entrepreneurship program. The goal is a device geared toward people without scientific backgrounds.

“We’d like to have a person push a button and walk away,” said Jimmy Gracia, the project’s principal designer and a senior who was set to graduate in May 2010.

Months earlier, they learned to process fuel that allowed an engine to run perfectly. This procedure is nothing groundbreaking, but it requires training according to Gracia. Even in this era of social responsibility, he thinks the technical demands scare people away from this recycled and renewable fuel source, which is often processed in home-designed “backyard” refineries. Their product provides an alternative, said Gracia.

He’s also proud of the system’s scalability, which makes it useful for people with very modest fuel needs, or businesses that use multiple vehicles.

In the lab, the engineers were fine tuning the chemical process to make sure the fuel reaches the highest quality levels. Accustomed to working with machinery, however, they stumbled a bit with the chemical procedures, electing to scrap the readings from some tests.

This refinement will be key to the success of their product if they ever bring it to market, according to Richard Milius, a Norwich chemistry professor who provided them with lab space and helped them relearn the chemical procedures back in the fall 2009 semester. He believes students had a great deal of success with their fuel early on.

“It worked like a charm,” said Milius. “They got really high-quality fuel out of all of their pilot runs.”

Students focused on automating the process in the spring, making it more of a “turnkey” system, he added. This would be another key to its marketability.

“What they’ve done so far is very, very promising,” said Milius.

The project really began several summers ago while Gracia was working for a New Jersey construction company that asked him to design a biodiesel system for its use. It was there he got the idea of automating the process, and brought it to his engineering professors at Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college. Interested in taking the project beyond the development stages, he proposed it as a potential project for the entrepreneurship program, which brings in marketing students and professors to explore the business side of rolling out an invention.

Gracia, an Air National Guardsman weighing a couple of job offers, isn’t sure how much time he will be able to devote to his refinery after graduation. He has pursued patents, however, and intends to take the idea to investors.

With the help of three marketing students, they’ve set up a mock company, United New England Energy Direct, and estimated the costs and returns just as if they were trying to capture the attention of venture capitalists. During a presentation before Norwich’s Board of Trustees, business student Dane McKeon and others made a sales pitch emphasizing that usability really differentiates this product from other small-scale biodiesel refineries.

“There are kits that you can buy ... but you almost have to be a mad scientist with a lab coat in your garage,” said McKeon, adding that initial plans would be to sell both the device and refined biodiesel.

Gracia said the project has been interesting and brought together a lot of people. He likes the idea of encouraging engineers to look beyond product development to the practical, business concerns.

“I like it,” he said. “I think every engineer should have some entrepreneurial savvy.”