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MIT student blogger Melis A. '08

Biodiesel@MIT: Turning trash into black gold by Melis A. '08

A student group called Biodiesel@MIT has just won the grand prize of $25,000 in the GE / mtvU Ecocollege Challenge.

On Wednesday, 70 degree weather spurred MIT students to sport cute sundresses, flip-flops and shorts. Today, we are in the midst of a winter storm, with accumulations of 5 to 8 inches of snow expected. Meanwhile crude oil reserves are drying out, glaciers are melting, and the world’s supply of fresh water is waning. There are several natural reactions to these calamities: pretend it’s not happening, accept defeat, or try to make changes that will impede this global energy crisis from spiraling out of control. A small group of MIT undergraduates forming the group Biodiesel@MIT chose the latter option, and they were awarded the grand prize of $25,000 in the GE / mtvU Ecocollege Challenge ( The prize also includes an Earth Day celebration, featuring a performance by Angels and Airwaves.

Biodiesel@MIT has developed a unique solution to lowering carbon dioxide emissions and reducing fuel costs at MIT. Their plan is to convert used vegetable oil from MIT dining halls into biodiesel that can fuel MIT’s shuttle buses. The money will be used to purchase a solar-powered biodiesel station to make their dream of turning trash into treasure a reality.

On-campus dining locations generate approximately 5,000 gallons of used vegetable oil (UVO) annually. Currently, MIT must pay $1.10 a gallon to get rid of this oil, which is used to deep-fry the French fries and onion rings that college students love ever so much. Instead of wasting this byproduct, Biodiesel@MIT wants to convert the UVO into biodiesel using methanol and potassium hydroxide, then add some petro-diesel to create a blended fuel that can be used in MIT’s shuttles. Approximately $15,000 of the prize money will go towards buying the solar-powered biodiesel station. Their goal is to have the system operating by summer 2007.

The group hopes that this project will not only lower campus emissions and energy costs, but also will serve as a teaching tool, since MIT students will be responsible for implementing the plan. Matt Zedler, a senior in Mechanical Engineering and one of the project’s organizers, recently said, “Recycling used vegetable oil on MIT’s campus represents an initial stride toward more sustainable campus operations, and I feel the level of support for this project from the students and administrators in the MIT community is a clear indicator of the desire for such on-campus greening projects now and in the future.”

It is thrilling to see Biodiesel@MIT gain the recognition that they deserve. If you are interested in seeing more examples of MIT students making an impact on their community and world, keep your eyes open for the Spring 2007 issue of the MIT Undergraduate Research Journal. It will be published around May 8 and features an article about Biodiesel@MIT, written by Matt Zedler, along with other outstanding student projects.

21 responses to “Biodiesel@MIT: Turning trash into black gold”

  1. Ebot says:

    great ! what could make the world happier.

  2. AJ says:

    This is awesome. I remember seeing a bunch of projects similar to this. If I remember correctly, the exhaust smells like French Fries!

  3. AJ says:

    This is awesome. I remember seeing a bunch of projects similar to this. If I remember correctly, the exhaust smells like French Fries.

  4. Meara says:

    It’s so cool that MIT involves undergrads in crazy-awesome stuff like this as a matter of course. Let us make the world better one french fry at a time!

  5. Alfred says:

    Interesting! It seems that many scientists are geared towards finding eco-friendly and abundant resources nowadays.

  6. Abhinav says:

    Wow! This is brilliant!! I’m amazed that undergraduates get involved in something as huge as this… wish I was there!! (Praying for the Decision….)

  7. Elizabeth says:

    how ’bout a picture of the decision letters going out via mailman like last year? Anyone else want one? If one was taken? wink

  8. Solomon says:

    Thats pretty good. a step in the right direction. It is amazing what students can do. I bet this will be a success.

  9. Aaron says:

    These groups are doing exactly what attracts me to MIT the most. I love alternatives!

  10. Abuuuuuu says:

    Yea elizabeth, I was thinking the same thing, it was pretty cool last year, and both Matt and Ben posted pictures of the mail, this yr not a single post saying that the decisions r in the mail. I wonder if they even had a camera when the mail man came

  11. milena says:

    Ooh that looks just like something I’d enjoy doing!!! I’m definitely going to check it out.

  12. luckygrl says:

    So, I hear that you are doing mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering with premed(according to your blog.) So, does majoring in biomedical engineering impact your grades for medical school? And, would it be possible to major in mechanical eng(biomedical engineering) and double major with management science, and do premed in four years with an optimum/decent gpa for medical school?

  13. Yuki says:

    Wow, just saw this on the page, VERY impressive! Congrats to them for sure, and it’ll be so cool to see their work implemented!

  14. Melis says:

    Hi luckygrl,

    While MIT would not forbid it, I don’t think it would be a wise decision to double major and be premed. Here’s why: none of your class requirements would overlap so you’d have to take a LOT of classes, also I can’t imagine you possibly needing to focus so heavily in all three areas. My suggestion would be to do the 2A program, which is what I am in. 2A allows you to combine mechanical engineering with another area, so you are only required to take the core mechanical engineering classes and it opens up room in your schedule to take other classes.
    Good luck!

  15. luckygrl says:

    Thanks Melis.

    Does that mean if I do mechanical engineering with a bioengineering focus I can satistfy the premed requirements, like you are doing?

  16. Melis says:

    Hi Luckygrl,

    Yes, but you don’t have to do it with an engineering focus. I’m just saying that it’s not wise to double major and do pre-med, if your majors are completely unrelated. You could still do the 2A program and get a degree in engineering along with taking a bunch of classes in management, if that’s what you’re interested in!

  17. Rita says:

    Hi! Would you mind sharing the METHOD in making the biodiesel from Fryer oil in the chem lab?
    I am doing my extended essay for IB program and I am in need to get some ACCURATE data in making the biodiesel myeself ! thanks !