Loyola University Chicago students fueling shuttle buses with biodiesel made by used vegetable oil

Searle Biodiesel Lab has been recycling used cooking oil for 16 years

ByTracy Butler and Blanca Rios, Adriana Aguilar WLS logo
Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Students fuel Loyola's shuttle buses with converted vegetable oil
A student-run lab at Loyola University Chicago has been collecting used cooking oil and converting it into biodiesel fuel for more than 15 years.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- From french-fries to shuttle buses at Loyola University - that's the journey thousands of gallons of vegetable oil take every year in Chicago.

Zach Waickman is a Senior Program Manager at the Searle Biodiesel Lab on Loyola's Rogers Park campus.

Waickman and the lab have been collecting used vegetable oil from the neighborhood and the city for 16 years.

"This lab is specifically about converting used cooking oils into biodiesel, which is a renewable direct replacement for petroleum diesel fuel," said Waickman.

The used cooking oil flows in from all sorts of places including Loyola cafeterias, other universities, museums and restaurants, Waickman said.

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Loyola has received most of their oil through its collection partner, Green Grease Environmental. However, some 2,000 gallons get dropped off by residents and other people familiar with the program.

It's also possible to convert animal fat into biodiesel fuel, but right now the Searle Biodiesel lab can only handle vegetable oil.

"It could be expired oil, or after you deep fry the turkey at Thanksgiving," said Waickman. "What do you do with it? Well a really good place to bring it is to Loyola."

The oil makes its way through pipes and tanks that resemble those of a beer brewery. The scientific process is called transesterification.

"If you drop off your used cooking at Loyola, we're then going to filter out any solids from it, run a chemical reaction to remove the glycerin molecule, clean up the resulting biodiesel with a little bit of water and then the final result is biodiesel fuel ready for a diesel engine," Waickman explained.

"Our biodiesel goes into shuttle buses that the university operates between our Lakeshore campus and our Water Tower campus," he said.

And bonus, the lab also turns the glycerin byproduct of vegetable oil into hand soap, which is used in all restrooms across campus.

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But before it gets on hands and inside engines, the lab must make sure it's up to code.

"It's a lot of quality testing so we're testing used cooking oil for stuff like water content and sediment before it goes into the process of turning into biodiesel," Environmental Science Student and Intern Nina Kroll said. "We're also testing the biodiesel once it comes out of that process to make sure that it's up to standards."

Kroll said the experience gives her independence and goes beyond the lab classes she takes.

"There's a business aspect, new product development there's all sorts of things that go into a running a project like this and that's one of the benefits that students get coming and working on this project," Waickman said.

Students are learning and seeing sustainability in action.

"For the university it's a cost neutral shift. Instead of buying it from an outside supplier they buy it from us and that's what funds our program," Waickman said. "It's not only run by students it's also self-sustaining within the university."

Donate used vegetable oil for the program at the School of Environmental Sustainability between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.

To learn more about Loyola's Biodiesel Program and what donations are accepted, click here.