Green Space: Future fuels

British Columbia’s top universities and a private Vancouver company take different routes in search of a sustainable fuel of the future

University of British Columbia engineering student – and apparent alchemist – Onyinye Ofulue led a team that turned waste cooking oil into diesel fuel |  Clare Kiernan

Disposing of used cooking oil can be a headache and an expense. For university cafeterias preparing food for thousands of students, the challenge is exponential.

Enter Onyinye Ofulue, a University of British Columbia (UBC) chemical and biological engineering student with a knack for solving problems. For the last three years, she has led a small team collecting waste cooking oil from UBC Food Services’ kitchens and converting it into an acid-based fuel known as biodiesel, which can be used to fuel diesel-powered vehicles.

“First, we clean up the oil at our lab using oil filters to remove food particles,” explains Ofulue. “Then we convert the oil using a process called transesterification, using methanol with potassium hydroxide as a catalyst. We’ve processed over a thousand litres of oil and produced more than 250 litres of the biodiesel so far, and it’s been used by one of the UBC housing services trucks on campus.”

For Ofulue, the main attraction of biodiesel is its lower environmental impact compared with pure diesel. Biodiesel can be carbon-neutral over its life cycle, and it has virtually no sulphur, making it less polluting.

There are two blends available: B5, consisting of five per cent biodiesel and 95 per cent diesel; and B20, consisting of 20 per cent biodiesel and 80 per cent regular diesel. Nothing is wasted – even the byproduct of the biodiesel conversion, glycerol, is turned into soap, which the team uses to wash glassware in its labs.

Ofulue, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, and moved to Canada five years ago, will graduate from UBC this year. She says she hopes to continue to work with the student team. “The goal is to get the biodiesel certified so that we can make more of it. And hopefully, the project will continue to expand,” she says.

Biomass utility ■ At Simon Fraser University (SFU), the SFU Community Trust is collaborating with Corix Multi-Utility Services Inc. on a $33 million community-based biomass project called the Burnaby Mountain District Energy Utility (BMDEU).

The project, approved by the British Columbia Utilities Commission, involves a high-efficiency heating plant using biomass – from wood waste – as the primary fuel source.

“The BMDEU is the fulfilment of a vision for a high-efficiency biomass heating plant to provide reliable, cost-effective, low-carbon thermal energy service to residents of UniverCity on Burnaby Mountain,” says Gordon Harris, president and CEO of SFU Community Trust.

This biomass plant will start serving the campus and residents with green energy in 2019. It will reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 85 per cent, and the entire, region-wide SFU GHG emissions from all sources by 69 per cent, according to projections.

“The development of this biomass heating plant will allow SFU to surpass the provincial mandated greenhouse gas reduction target for 2020,” says Larry Waddell, SFU’s chief facilities officer.

Landfill powered ■ A private Vancouver company, meanwhile, claims it can turn any virtually landfill waste material into biodiesel.

That is the idea behind a new proprietary technology being commercialized by Cielo Waste Solutions Corp., a Canadian public company that is aiming to revolutionize the biodiesel industry through the creation of mini-refineries that can turn any fibrous material into renewable diesel. That diesel can then be sold to diesel refineries to produce blended diesel fuel that meets Canadian renewable fuel regulations, the company claims.

Cielo’s renewable biodiesel can be made from waste materials including all types of plastic, organics like table scraps or lawn clippings, cardboard, woodwaste and tires.

Cielo is currently executing a Phase 1 development, which is a retrofit of its Alberta pilot plant into a continuous-flow commercial refinery.