Changing the future of fuel

What was once considered science fiction (think Back to the Future) now is reality. Well, almost.

They aren't stuffing wilted lettuce and banana peels into gas tanks, but students with ISU BioBus are recycling waste vegetable oil from an Iowa State dining hall into biofuel to supplement the diesel fuel in a bus from Ames' CyRide fleet.

ISU BioBus, an entrepreneurial student organization created three years ago, currently has about 100 members from all academic disciplines.

David Correll, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Business and one of the founders of ISU BioBus, says the organization is a good fit for students concerned about the environment.

"We're engaging students to reduce the carbon footprint of their own community," Correll said.

From French fries to fuel

Students meet twice each week to convert the vegetable oil into biofuel using a process called transesterification, which permanently thins the vegetable oil. They even built their own contraption -- the Super Sucker -- to retrieve the vegetable oil from the dining hall. Fifty gallons of used vegetable oil yields about 50 gallons of biofuel.

It's hard to comprehend that standard vegetable oil, which once cooked French fries and chicken strips, can power a bus. But it seems to works pretty well, according to James Rendall, maintenance coordinator at CyRide.

"CyRide has been using fuel from BioBus since last spring," Rendall said. "We haven't seen any issues arise due to the BioBus fuel."

So, does the bus exhaust smell like French fries?

"Yes, it can," Correll said. "It's not as noticeable in our case because [the fuel] is a blend."

Future looks bright

ISU BioBus is in the process of developing a comprehensive business plan to increase the number of CyRide buses that use biofuel.

"My hope is to see more biobuses driving around," Correll said. "I also want to see [ISU BioBus] continue so that students get experience in making biofuel and being entrepreneurs."