Biodiesel Cooperative Vapor Characterization

Executive Summary:

The Biodiesel Cooperative is seeking funds to perform a vapor characterization analysis to determine the quantity of methanol vapor released from the Biodiesel Cooperative’s production process.

Characterizing the vapors released from the reactor is important, because the biodiesel conversion involves methanol. Methanol can cause health effects when inhaled. The OSHA permissible exposure limit for methanol vapor exposure is a time-weighted average of 200ppm over an 8-hour period. The Cooperative uses liquid methanol, but since the reactor is heated during the conversion some of the methanol may vaporize during reaction. It is important to know if any of this vaporized methanols is released, because it could have health effects. The Cooperative will also be determining the flammability risk with the vapor. This research has impacts that are potentially broader than just the Cooperative. The vapors released from small-scale biodiesel reactors have not been well characterized. The vapor characterization will help to keep small-scale biodiesel producers like the Cooperative safe.

The characterization will be performed in a temporary lab space allocated to the Cooperative by Engineering Facilities Services for the purpose of the vapor characterization. This project will be done in cooperation with Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S). The ultimate goal of the project is to determine the Cooperative’s lab requirements. Once EH&S agrees to the lab requirements, the Cooperative will be able to find a lab space that meets the Cooperative’s long term needs and insures its viability. The Cooperative will be in a much stronger position to fulfill its main goals after this characterization is complete. It will be able to begin to educate individuals in a small-scale alternative energy production, while also increase sustainability on campus by repurposing a waste stream into fuel for on-campus vehicles

Student Involvement:

Student volunteer opportunities of this project can be divided into two categories: logistics and engineering. Below are the main project leaders. Each of these leaders is currently involved in the vapor characterization project in the ways explained below. There will be further opportunities for student involvement for more junior members. These junior members will help to implement the project and work directly under one of the project leaders on specific tasks, such as running the reactor or helping to write grants for the project.


  • Project Manager: The vapor characterization project’s manager, Steve Jeka, is responsible for writing and revising vapor testing methods, collaborating with EH&S, and communicating the project’s needs to the Chief Technical Officer.
  • Chief Technical Officer: The Cooperative’s 2011-2012 chief technical officer, Brandon Curtis, is responsible for communicating the project’s logistical needs to the logistics team, managing and scheduling the vapor characterization lab team in cooperation with the lab director and project manager, leading vapor characterization-related engineering meetings, and participating in engineering operations.
  • Lab Director: The Cooperative’s 2011-2012 lab director, Nick Wang, is responsible for assisting the Chief Technical officer by helping to manage and schedule the vapor characterization lab team, lead vapor characterization-related engineering meetings, and participate in engineering operations.
  • Head of Maintenance and Safety: The Cooperative’s 2011-2012head of maintenance and safety, Brian Parsons, is responsible for performing routine maintenance checks, enforcing safety protocol, and communicating lab supply and maintenance needs to the lab director and chief technical officer to make sure the vapor characterization project proceeds safely.
  • Assistant Lab Directors: The Cooperative’s current assistant lab directors, Andrew Byrum, Tung Hefferan, Rowdy Roddick, are responsible for specific engineering operations projects such as managing a reactor run as directed by the lab director and the chief technical officer.


  • Chief Operations Officer: The Cooperative’s 2011-2012 chief operations officer, Grant Williamson, is responsible for running vapor characterization-related executive meetings, creating publicity documents, writing grants and stakeholder agreements, and supporting the engineering team through attaining funding and public backing for the vapor characterization project.
  • Chief Relations Officer: The Cooperative’s 2011-2012 chief relations officer, Kathryn Cogert, is responsible for running internal vapor characterization-related logistics meetings, communicating the status of the project to stakeholders and aligning the project with stakeholder needs, and supporting the engineering team through attaining funding and public backing for the vapor characterization project.

Education & Outreach:

The Biodiesel Cooperative’s primary goal is education. The core mission of the Cooperative is to prepare students for jobs in the alternative energy industry. This preparation comes through education. This education takes two forms, hands-on learning and mentorship. The Cooperative helps students gain both engineering and business experience through operating a small-scale biodiesel plant. On the business side this experience stems from satisfying stakeholders, performing outreach, and managing the Cooperative’s financials. On the engineering side this experience involves process improvements, plant operation and research. The cooperative also provides mentorship opportunities for students in the form of more experienced students and industry professionals.

The Cooperative has a strong outreach arm. The Cooperative works with its mentors and stakeholders to educate the community about alternative energy. Since its founding last December the Cooperative has participated in several on campus outreach events. These included Engineering Discovery Days in Spring 2011, the ENGAGE event the day before the SEBA sponsored Autumn Science and Engineering Career Fair and the Sustainability Summit this October. At these events the Cooperative worked to educate the community about alternative energy industry while also giving members the opportunity to hone their communication skills. The Cooperative also has gone to classes on campus to recruit. As we deepen our relationships with departments we hope to begin to offer class presentations, lab tours, and hands on labs about alternative energy and the Biodiesel Cooperative.

The vapor characterization project is largely for internal Cooperative purposes and so will be publicized primarily to Cooperative stakeholders in the community. These stakeholders value this information, because it will help to define the direction the Cooperative takes with finding a space and showcase the Cooperative’s standard of professionalism and dedication to safety. We have numerous stakeholders involved in locating a permanent space. These most prominently include Engineering Facilities and EH&S. By giving our stakeholders the precise lab requirements we have they will be able to better connect us with community members who can help give us a home. Furthermore, the success of this project will act as a stepping-stone for stronger outreach to the rest of the campus. Once the Cooperative has a lab space, it will be able to offer more hands-on opportunities. The logistics team will also be able to focus more heavily on outreach rather than investing much of their time in locating a space for the Cooperative. While this project has a relatively small immediate impact on the Cooperative’s outreach efforts, it will enable the Cooperative to quickly improve its outreach offerings and more actively publicize itself on campus.

Environmental Impact:
  • Energy Use
  • Transportation
  • Waste
Project Longevity:

Environmental Problem:

Reducing green house gases has been a rising industrial endeavor in the past few years. The good news is from 1997 to 2007 the “green economy” has tripled in size. That means when current engineering students graduate to the job market, the openings will be in that industry. However, the bad news is those students are not being prepared to work in this rapidly growing sector. Internships and co-ops are readily available at large chemical companies like Dow and DuPont, but getting relevant industry experience at a start-up biodiesel plant is much more difficult. The Biodiesel Cooperative provides industry experience and works prepare students for jobs in the alternative energy through hands on experience.

Our goal is to create a non-profit entirely student run biodiesel plant at UW using waste cooking oil from on campus restaurants. This vapor characterization project is an opportunity for students to gain relevant industry experience in the alternative energy industry, as well as act as a key stepping-stone in bringing our envisioned biodiesel plant online. By characterizing the vapor leaving our process, the Cooperative will be able to determine what kind of lab our plant will be best housed in and the Cooperative will have accomplished its goal of fostering tomorrow’s energy innovators.

Explain how the impacts will be measured:

The impact of this particular project will be measured in three ways. First, the impact of the project can be measured by our project conclusions. The ultimate goal of this project is to determine what kind of permanent lab space the Cooperative requires. Currently, Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) requires a fume hood for us to operate because we do not know how much methanol vapor is produced during our process. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find a permanent lab space with a fume hood. After the data we collect is synthesized, we will be able to conclude with confidence whether our lab needs a fume hood or not. That conclusion will impact the success of the Biodiesel Cooperative as a whole. If we are able to conclude that a well-ventilated space would suffice, then the Cooperative will have a much easier time finding a permanent home. The impact can also be measured in the number of other small-scale biodiesel producers that the Cooperative is able to help. There is very little literature on the vapors released from a biodiesel production process. The data we collect will be a useful source for other budding biodiesel cooperatives as they determine what their “best practice space” would be. Finally, the impact will be measured in the number of students who gain experience doing research within the alternative energy industry. This project is entirely student run, and each student involve will complete the project more prepared to enter the alternative energy industry then they were before they began.

Total amount requested from the CSF: $1,620
This funding request is a: Grant
If this is a loan, what is the estimated payback period?:


ItemCost per ItemQuantityTotal Cost
Methanol $450/55 gal drum (including shippinng)1$450
Catalyst (KOH)$4/lb10 lbs$40
Sulfuric Acid$20/500 mL1 L$40
Storage Totes (5 Gal Carboys)$10/unit50$500
Spill Kits$135/unit2$270
Oil Barrier$85/unit2$170

Non-CSF Sources:

Source/DescriptionAmount RequestedDate RequestedDate Received
Mary Gates Leadership Scholarship$4000Oct 25thDenied
Project Completion Total: $1,620


TaskTimeframeEstimated Completion Date
Methods Refinemens with EH&S7 weeksJanuary 11th
Purchase & Procure Required Materials5 weeksJanuary 25th
Locate Temporary Lab Space with Facilities Services (or outside agent found through CSF)5 weeksFebruary 10th
Move In1 dayFebruary 11th
Perform Required Tests (Run Biodiseal Reactor at capacity on 5 seperate occasions)3 weeksFebruary 25th
Move out1 dayFebruary 28th
Analyze Data and Present Conclusions to the Cooperative, EH&S and Facility Services1 weekMarch 4th

Project Approval Forms: