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May 26, 2010 10:26AM

St. Ambrose brews biodiesel for maintenance use

By Sarah J. Gardner
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Stephanie Makosky / staff
Jim Hannon is St. Ambrose University’s campus facilities director and has been there since 1985. He holds a jar of biodiesel in the cafeteria of the university’s Cosgrove Hall, where a vital ingredient is collected to make the fuel — used cooking oil. 40 gallons of cooking oil makes about 36 gallons of biodiesel. In the summer months, Mr. Hannon uses 100 percent biofuel in the university’s equipment.
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Each year the cafeteria in Cosgrove Hall at St. Ambrose University produces more than 1,600 gallons of used cooking oil. It doesn't go to waste, though. The oil is reused in a surprising way: it powers the campus maintenance equipment as biodiesel fuel.

Of course, biodiesel is nothing new at St. Ambrose. Jim Hannon, campus facilities director, and his grounds crew have been perfecting the process of converting used cooking oil into fuel over the last several years. They use the homebrewed biodiesel to mow lawns and remove snow. Doing so has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from maintenance equipment by 80 percent and save the university between $6,000 and $10,000 in annual fuel costs.

Like traditional diesel, biodiesel thickens in cool weather and has to be combined with other fuel for winter use. "Our goal was to burn 100 percent biodiesel in our equipment under the right temperature conditions, and last spring, we were able to do that," explains Hannon. "And then in the summer came the real test. The grass was really growing with all the rain. We were mowing a lot, but we had enough biodiesel to keep up with it." Hannon, who is an outdoorsman, says being more environmentally aware rather than just dumping the used oil in a landfill is an important goal.

Next year the university will break ground on a new facility that will allow the grounds crew to produce biodiesel more efficiently. It will also give them a space in which to conduct information and training sessions for other organizations and individuals interested in learning to produce biodiesel themselves.

The biodiesel initiative is just one of St. Ambrose's recent environmental projects. The university also installed underground tanks on campus that can hold up to 45,000 gallons of rainwater. After a storm, water is diverted before entering municipal sewer systems and stored for landscaping use instead. Likewise, a student-led recycling program keeps several tons of paper, plastic and cardboard out of area landfills each month. And recent building projects on campus have incorporated energy-efficient elements in their design.

The school colors may be navy and white, but these projects show St. Ambrose can be a little green, too.

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