Professor profile: From feedstock to tailpipe

Susan Williams, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering

KU may not be the only university researching alternative fuels, but it does have a plan that sets it apart. Whereas the majority of research looks at producing alternative fuels, Susan Williams, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, and colleagues are looking to produce, test and incorporate new methods of biodiesel production.

“There are a lot of universities that are doing similar types of things,” Williams said. “The thing that I think is really unique about what we’re doing is we’re not only looking at the production of the fuel but also the testing of the fuel and then trying to incorporate this ‘feedstock to tailpipe’ approach into (KU’s) production facility. It’s a methodology of approaching the problem that we think is necessary of you’re going to come up with the next generation of fuels.”

In a new KU YouTube video, Williams discusses research at KU that is turning cooking oil into fuel for university buses and engines, being a leader in the cycle of crop growth and fuel refinement, collaboration and sharing their findings.

Williams is the director of the KU Biodiesel Initiative. The student-led project takes cooking oil on campus and converts it to fuel for use in campus buses, lawnmowers and other engines. This semester, the group began providing biodiesel to power generators for inflatable games and attractions at the Hy-Vee Family Hawk Zone at home football games. The initiative was a student idea, launched with $15,000 of funding from Student Senate to build a refinery.

The initiative has produced fuel as well as ideas. A “feedstock to tailpipe” approach has grown out of the work.

The program “is really looking at the impact of fuels, all the way from what you choose as the feedstock to how you make the fuel, to how it burns in an engine and what the emissions are and what the impact of all of that is on the ecosystem,” Williams said.

Williams and numerous other faculty members are collaborating with student leaders to provide their expertise in the program.

The initiative has been successful in producing enough biodiesel from used cooking oil to meet a percentage of the fuel needs of campus. Williams said she envisions something much larger, eventually reaching beyond campus.

“What we would like to be able to do is, long term, satisfy the fuel needs of the university, based on using used cooking oil,” Williams said. “The vision is having a much larger facility that’s able to be a model for what this could be in a rural community, or a small community. If we can demonstrate that and show that it’s sustainable and economically feasible, then we can be a model and do outreach to other communities who might want to do the same thing.”

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