ROGERS PARK — Loyola University has the only college-level chemical manufacturing business in the country that is federally licensed to produce and sell biodiesel on the open market.
Biodiesel is an environmentally friendly transportation fuel created from the remnants of used cooking oil and animal fats. It is biodegradable, non-toxic and does not produce the black soot seen pluming from the smokestacks of big rigs hauling the nation’s freight.
It is considered a major piece in the movement toward greener, safer industry and away from an overdependence on the world’s finite supply of fossil fuels.
Loyola’s warehouse-like refining facility, accessed through a loading ramp off an alley just south of Sheridan Road, is tucked into the university’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability, which opened three years ago on the lakefront campus.
The fuel-making facility turns the fiction of "Back to the Future II" — with the mad scientist Doc Brown stuffing the “Mr. Fusion” on his time machine with garbage scraps for fuel — into a reality. The lab at Loyola is not turning over banana peels or empty beer cans like Doc Brown, but they are turning trash into a kind of valuable treasure.
“We made about 6,000 gallons last year,” says Professor Zach Waickman, the lone faculty manager in the student-run lab. “This coming year we’re up around 8,500 gallons on our way to about 10,000 gallons a year, which will be our stable number.”
The production length at Loyola, from dirty oil full of “chunkles,” (a word the crew made up to describe the bits of French fries, calamari, fried shrimp, parts of chicken fingers, and fallen-off breading left in the used oil), is about four days. It could be faster, but they work on an academic schedule, not a factory one.
“College students wake up some time around noon, so we work then until they start drinking some time around 2 p.m.,” Waickman joked, eliciting deep frowns and indignant facial expressions from the students in the lab, all of whom were sober and presumably awake before noon.
The chemical process, which includes reusing the physical waste created as the oil is rendered down and changed into a fuel, has led to an entirely self-sustaining lab within the school — meaning the work and the sellable products they create cash their own ticket.
In addition to the fuel — which is sold wholesale to the very shuttle bus companies who ferry students from Loyola’s Rogers Park campus to the Downtown campus — the four main parts of waste created during the process are re-purposed into other useful products, with potential for more outlets on the horizon.
“So we have four main byproducts,” Waickman said. “Solid matter (chunkles), glycerin, excess alcohols and waste water. We have projects at various stages of development that have turned these into other products.”
• The solid wastes are being used as anaerobic digesters at water treatment facilities, where they break down into methane gas, which can be captured and used for creating electricity, and a nutrient-rich slurry that can be spread as fertilizer over farming land, or dried out and sold as a top soil.
• Glycerin, which is produced during the chemical reaction to purify the oil, is used to make the hand soap dispensed across Loyola. This soap, according to Waickman, was recognized last year by the U.S. EPA’s “Safer Choice” program, and Loyola itself was named one of the agency’s partners of the year.
• Excess alcohol from the process is used to make windshield wiper fluid, which is sold wholesale to Loyola’s clients, including their own shuttle service.
• Waste water, which is amongst the most benign waste possible in an industrial process, has many uses, some still being discovered. At Loyola they are attempting to use the nutrients to grow algae, which can be used to make fish food. That fish food then can be used to feed the fish at the school’s own Urban Agriculture program.
All of these products serve the lab’s objective of creating a “closed loop” system, a term that sprouts up in conversation with lab personnel time and again. The closed loop will be complete when everything created in their chemical lab, from by-products to waste, is turned again into something else useful.
“We want to direct these things toward the best place possible and be directly involved in getting that product to its best and highest use,” Waickman said. “This could have been just waste water, for example, that made its way to a treatment facility, then into the Chicago River system and eventually into the Mississippi and down into the Gulf of Mexico.”
Loyola’s biodiesel program began modestly back in 2007, as a student project, collecting five-gallon buckets of oil from a single student cafeteria, Waickman said.
Now, more than eight years later, their lab collects the used cooking oils from not only its own campus, but Northwestern University, DePaul University, the City Colleges of Chicago, the Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium, several restaurants including the Waterfront Cafe in Rogers Park, and people who just drop off their used oil, amongst other sources.
“It’s really invaluable experience,” said Dani Abboud, a junior-year Environmental Science major.
“You can see the effect it has and quantify it at the end of every semester. We offset this much waste, we offset this much of our own byproducts in the lab. And you can see even in a business application how environmentalism has its place and it gives you a better score of what you can do after college. Its amazing experience as a full-time student.”
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