Students conduct energy-saving experiment

With ever-increasing energy prices and the end of our supply of petroleum an inevitable threat, more and more alternative energy and fuel sources are being considered for the future. Madison High School in Clairemont is leading the way in experimenting with just such a resource that, if supported further, could be a solution.

Tyler Huff

In the last few years, biodiesel, a combination of vegetable oil, methanol and lye, has been experimented with as an alternative fuel for diesel engines. Greg Quirin, automechanics instructor for Madison High School’s Regional Occupation Program Autoshop and former UCSD transportation services mechanic, began working with his students to produce his own version upon learning of biodiesel’s many benefits.

In his research, he found that biodiesel is not only a completely renewable, nontoxic alternative, it’s also a means of recycling used vegetable oil that would normally be taken to a landfill.

“”A large restaurant gets rid of 500 gallons of vegetable oil in a month, 90 percent of which can be reclaimed, filtered and used to make biodiesel,”” Quirin explained.

Furthermore, used or unused, the vegetable oil can be taken from any number of sources ranging from soy bean to canola oil.

What further distinguishes biodiesel from standard diesel fuel is its drastically lower emissions rates, which translates to a much more environmentally responsible fuel source. Its only by-product is glycerin and it has between 40 to 60 percent lower emissions of government-regulated by-products such as carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and particulates or soot.

Biodiesel can also be used in any diesel engine without requiring any modifications or conversions to the engine.

“”Another advantage is the lubricating effect biodiesel has that has been shown to increase engine life,”” added instructional aide Daniel McKinley.

Motivated by the promising results of his study of biodiesel, Quirin set out to create a biodiesel lab within the autoshop. Guided only by information offered in Joshua Trickell’s book on biodiesel, “”From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank,”” Quirin and his students were able to manufacture their own biodiesel for around 80 cents per gallon using little more than a trolling motor and a steel drum.

“”I tell the students that if you can bake a cake, you can make biodiesel,”” Quirin said.

The fairly simple process requires only two ingredients beyond vegetable oil: lye and methanol, which are required to create a catalyst for the reaction necessary to produce the fuel.

Not satisfied with merely producing biodiesel, Quirin decided to challenge his students further and put their fuel to real-life application. The result after nearly a year of work and experimentation was the “”Veggie Volvo,”” a Volvo 760 equipped with a diesel engine made by the students in the autoshop. Quirin and his students entered the Veggie Volvo in the 2001 Del Mar Fair, taking home first place for Transportation Group Project as well as an environmental awareness award.

The recognition and recent media coverage of the project has helped earn grants from groups such as the Greater San Diego Educational Industry Counsel.

“”In the United States there’s only a handful of universities researching biodiesel,”” Quirin said. “”We’re probably the only known high school that not only experiments with it, but produces and uses it in our own shop’s vehicles as well.””

Such a statement reveals how new and relatively unknown biodiesel is and therefore how unique Quirin’s program is.

As awareness about biodiesel spreads, it’s becoming clear that its role in the future has great potential. Biodiesel is compatible with any diesel engine; therefore, it could potentially power boats, buses, trucks and even power plants that run off a large diesel engine. The government has already begun using biodiesel in fleets, and in several parts of the country, public buses are being powered by the vegetable-based fuel as well.

The trend may catch on further, as a large-scale conversion of vehicle engines from petroleum-based fuel dependence to relying on some sort of alternative fuel source is unavoidable in the near future.

“”Within the next five years, buses and all diesel vehicles will have to meet federal and state emissions standards and current diesel engines are not clean-running enough to pass these standards,”” Quirin explained.

He also said that compared with other options such as natural gas or cars powered by electricity, biodiesel is a much more viable choice: Natural gas is a limited resource and cannot be used without expensive conversions for engines, and electric cars have yet to be perfected.

So what’s next for Quirin and his research? He has set his sights on a more efficient vehicle intended to run only on biodiesel. With the help of a Perkins grant for vocational classes at the high school, Quirin said he plans to take a “”small, efficient engine from a Volkswagen Rabbit and adapt it into a custom kit car with hopes of achieving 45-50 miles to a gallon running on vegetable oil.”” The Veggie Volvo currently gets approximately 25 miles to the gallon, so Quirin has high hopes.

Financial support seems to be his largest obstacle, because the project is currently funded primarily by donations received from work the autoshop students perform on the shop’s cars.

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