Monday, December 3, 2007

System and van update

The system is running great, and our road tests are going well too. The wilskills van has been getting 33% better fuel mileage than our previous van (24mpg), and it is running on 95% biodiesel now (we just haven't run all of the diesel out of it yet).

Our soap is now for sale as well. A 16oz bottle is $4, and it is $6/gal (if you bring in your own container). Refills in the 16oz containers are $2ea. It can be used as a hand soap, laundry detergent, car wash, and shampoo. Contact to purchase the soap.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Testing is underway

Hello again-
We have completed the main system construction, and we ran the first partial batch through the system to make sure that all the systems were working. Other than a few small issues, everything worked nicely. We are currently testing the biodiesel in several vehicles and plant ops machines, and the results are all positive so far.

We have also started making liquid soap, and so far we are happy with the results. We got permission to put it in several bathrooms in Featheringill hall, so feel free to drop by there to test it. If you want more, just stop by the shed with a container, and we will fill it up for you.

We have a few more weeks of testing, and we should be ready for normal operation. Sorry, but the blogging software isn't allowing me to upload pictures right now, but hopefully we will have some on our website soon.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Building complete!

Hello again-
I am happy to announce that our facility is now complete, and we just need a couple of safety items before we can start production and testing. I will post pictures in a week or so when we get the final components.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Biodiesel update

Hello again-
The project has been making good progress (despite my infrequent updates to this blog). I am happy to announce that we have been given the green light by the metro air regulations committee and the VEHS office to start construction of the system. Thanks to Brad Berron and the VEHS office who put together the major components of our application.

Our shed is almost complete now (I will post pictures soon), and we should be able to finish the system construction and start brewing soon. It is very nice and will suit our needs very well. Feel free to stop by and see its current progress on the northwest corner of the power plant lot. We need to think of ideas for the name for the shed (biodiesel shed and brew haus have been suggested), so let me know if you have ideas.

Thanks again to all of you who have helped, and feel free to contact me ( if you are interested in getting involved.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Udall bus tour

Hello again-
Yesterday the UDall biodiesel bus stopped by to see Vanderbilt and the biodiesel initiative, and it was an excellent event. All the biodiesel machinery and the new Wilskills biodiesel van were on display, and everyone seemed to have a great time and learn a few things as well. Keep an eye out in the Vanderbilt Register for an upcoming article about the project!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Biodiesel update

Sorry it has been so long since my last update, but the end of the semester has been exceedingly busy for me. I have several updates to share with the group:

Our biodiesel is currently being used by plant operations equipment and they seem to be quite happy with its performance so far.

We now have bumper stickers supporting the project and advertising its use on the vehicles which use the biodiesel, so keep an eye out on campus for tractors and mowers with our stickers. I have more stickers, so let me know if you want some.

We have started using KOH (caustic potash) instead of NaOH as the reaction catalyst. It has many benefits and adds minimal costs to the final product.

I have been experimenting with soap and degreaser production and I think I have a viable recipe for it now. However, I have significant limitations when it comes to picking out pleasant "scents," so if you are interested in lending your nose to helping choose a smell for our liquid soap, let me know.

Our move onto campus will hopefully be happening sometime during June, so keep your schedules open during that month if you are interested in helping construct the building and moving the equipment.

Monday, April 16, 2007

First Full Batch!

Hello again-
This last weekend we accomplished several project goals. About 10 members of the biodiesel group congregated in my back yard on Saturday to help brew the first full batch of biodiesel in the processor, and the operation went quite well.

It was a cool morning, so the oil started at about 60 degrees, so I used the centerfuge to heat and filter the oil until it was was 120 degrees which took about 2.5 hours. Robin is currently building us a small heater for the system so we can more precicely control the temperature without the use of the centerfuge. The rest of the process went well, although it took a long time to get the lye to dissolve in the methanol.

That being said, we decided to discuss the design of the methoxide mixing system, and I picked up a damaged washing machine for its pump and motor. We took apart the machine and tested its functionality (which was fine), but we decided that we will need to make some adjustments to the plumbing and wiring to make it ideal for a methoxide mixing system. In the next few weeks we will build the mixer and test it.

To avoid the problem of the glycerol congealing, I drained the glycerol in stages (every 30 minutes or so). The glycerol flowed well, although to avoid this problem in the future and to improve the soap-making prospects, we are going to investigate the use of KOH instead of NaOH as a catalyst. KOH will cost more than double (adding $.07/gallon to the final product cost), but it won't congeal with poor oil, and it will produce a liquid soap which is easier to work with than the soap bars from the lye byproduct. Keep checking here to see our progress on this task.

After the biodiesel was finished reacting and draining, I added .5% magnesol by weight (about 10 cups worth), and I mixed it completely. I then ran the centerfuge for 1.5 hours to clean out the magnesol. To run it optimally, I actually used the porportioning valve to decrease the pressure to 40psi. I did this because the normal 90psi that the pump produces causes the centerfuge to spin at very high speeds and eventually it slows (most likely due to friction). It seems that running it at 40psi alleviates this issue.

I had to clean the centerfuge once and it was obvious that it needed cleaning because I could hear that it was slowing down and almost stopped. When I took it apart, it was almost completely full of magnesol, so it performed its task properly and it was pretty easy to clean. Once I have drained the tank and I have taken apart the final filter, I will get a better idea of how much magnesol the centerfuge didn't remove. So far, it looks like adding more centerfuges will significantly increase the speed and contamination capacity of the filtering system. Our 1.5 HP pump should be able to drive several centerfuges at 40 psi if that is necessary. I am also testing the filtration waste product as a fertilizer in my garden. Keep posted for those results as well.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

First batch of biodiesel

Hello again-
Last Thursday we brewed our first batch of biodiesel (20 gallons), and I am proud to announce that it was a complete success. We had a few issues with the glycerol solidifying in the pipes, but once they were heated, the glycerol drained and we ended up with a good batch.

We used .5% magnesol by weight without heating and it seems to have sufficiently cleaned the biodiesel although it wasn't the super clean biodiesel that we were able to get using 2% magnesol. The centrifuge cleaned out the magnesol, but some residue was left in the bottom of the tank, which means that a cone-bottom tank will be necessary for optimality.

I have put 10 gallons of the clean biodiesel in my diesel truck, and after driving around with it yesterday (to pick up more components for the system), it seems to perform well. It seems that there is a slight power loss, but not enough to effect normal driving. The engine definately runs smoother and quieter, and the exhaust has the distinct smell of a fryer. We will be delivering the balance of the biodiesel to Plant Operations at Vanderbilt for testing in their equipment.

Monday, March 26, 2007

System Update

Sorry, it has been a while since my last post, so I will use this opportunity to get everyone up to speed on our current progress.

We found out that we did not win the MTVU grant, but we have found a few sources of funding at Vanderbilt, so we have actually started construction.

I ordered the components and the design and construction comittee met over the weekend to put a preliminary system together. I am happy to announce that we have a fully functional processor, although it has several improvements that need to be made. Here is a picture of the full system (it is currently located in my shed).

It is designed so it is compact and easy to move. The blue drum has a capacity of 55 gallons, so the system will initially be able to process 40 gallon batches. We are using this as a pilot so we can better understand the process and tweak the design for a larger processor in the future.

The black pump below the blue tank is a 1.5 HP pump that is used both for recirculation and powering the centrifuge. The white cylinder to the left of the pump is the final filter to ensure that no contamination will be in the final product.

In this picture you can the the pump (with the yellow wire coming out of it) and the white filter. There are a series of valves to allow us to use the pump to recirculate the oil, draw in oil from an outside source, and run the centrifuge. The valves also allow us to drain the glycerol after it settles.

The next picture is a picture of the top valves. The left side recirculates the oil (at about 15 GPM), and the right side sends the oil to the centrifuge. It also has a pressure gauge to help us monitor the system and centrifuge performance. Currently the centrifuge runs at about 85psi which is in it's optimal filtering band. It filters about 2GPM and spins at almost 9000RPM, although it actually doesn't make much noise surprisingly. The centrifuge is designed to be a replacement for a filter on large diesel engines, so it is quite rugged and well built.

Running the centrifuge also heats the oil about 20-30 degrees (F), and given that it is currently summer, we have decided to not worry about adding a heater to the system for now. We hope to run our first batch of biodiesel sometime this week.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Washing test pictures

This picture shows the heated biodiesel tests we performed. We heated the completed biodiesel until all the methanol was boiled off, and then filtered the soapy residue out of of the batch. The jar on the far left shows the heated batch without any magnesol. The jar in the middle had .1% magnesol (by weight). The jar on the right had 1% magnesol. The magnesol is added to the biodiesel and then filtered out with a 5 micron filter. The clearer the water, the cleaner the biodiesel.

This picture shows the unheated biodiesel tests with Magnesol. The far left jar is completely unwashed and unheated. The next jar
has .1% magnesol, the next jar has 1% magnesol, and the jar on the right has 2% magnesol.

It looks like unheated biodiesel requires approximately 2% magnesol to make it as clean as possible.

Friday, February 23, 2007


We have only a little time left to vote for our project on , so please vote SOON and tell all your friends to vote before March 2nd. We will hear whether or not we get the grant by March 20th, so lets keep promoting the project!

Biodiesel Organization

Since we applied for the ecomagination grant (, we have grown quite a bit and we have split into several committees to effectively accomplish the work. The committees are as follows:
Publicity & Grants
Design & Construction

The tasks of each of these groups are pretty self-explianitory, so if you are interested in getting involved with any of them, just let me know

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Research Progress

The research committee has completed .5 Liter tests on different washing methods. After the transesterification process, soaps and other contaminants are left in the biodiesel which can cause harm to diesel engines in the long run. Traditionally biodiesel is washed with water, but the water becomes a waste product since it has lots of soap diluted in it.

Commercial biodiesel producers use several different purification methods for the biodiesel, so we decided to try a couple of them including heating and Magnesol.

Heating removes the excess methanol from the biodiesel and since the soaps are dissolved in the methanol, when no methanol is left, the soaps congeal and can be filtered out easily.

Magnesol is a commercial solvent often used in cooking oil to extend its life. It is essentially synthetic magnesium silicate (talc powder), but it is finer and more absorbent than talc. The manufacturer reccomends using 2% by weight, but we wanted to investigate this claim since the manufacturers and sellers are somewhat biased.

To determine the cleanliness of the biodiesel, we performed a water wash test and examined the resulting water color. The more hazy the water, the more soaps that were still dissolved in the "washed" biodiesel.

We performed two sets of test, one where we heated the biodiesel and filtered out the soaps and one where we left the biodiesel unheated. Within these 2 sets we tested different concentrations of Magnesol (2%, 1%, .1%, 0%).

We found that the Magnesol was mostly effective at cleaning the unheated biodiesel at a concentration of 1%. The heated biodiesel required less than .1%, so it seems that heating the biodiesel and then using magnesol is the most economical option.

Welcome to the Vanderbilt Biodiesel Initiative Blog

Thanks for checking out the brand new Vanderbilt Biodiesel Blog.

I will be updating this blog to keep everyone up to date with the progress of the biodiesel project at Vanderbilt.

Feel free to share comments or suggestions!