Tuesday, June 5, 2007

BYU students turn coconut oil into biodiesel

Source: http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,660226370,00.html

By Tad Walch
Deseret Morning News

PROVO — Coconuts have all kinds of uses, from the ridiculous to
the reverent.
BYU team members Rachel Martin and Jared Geddes prepare coconuts for
production of biodiesel. (Bryce Gandy and Chelise Van DeGraaff BYU)
Bryce Gandy and Chelise Van DeGraaff BYU
BYU team members Rachel Martin and Jared Geddes prepare coconuts for
production of biodiesel.
Comedians banged together coconut halves to make the clip-clop
sounds of hooves as they drily pretended to ride horses with regal
seriousness in the cult-movie hit "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
Medical journals report that in a pinch, coconut milk has been used as
an IV fluid, and in many cultures, the coconut palm is considered the
"Tree of Life" for all it provides.
But in Tonga, where the coconut market crashed two decades ago,
a Brigham Young University engineering class proved this month that
coconut oil could make a crucial comeback as a biodiesel fuel.
"The Tongan economy centered around exporting coconuts and
coconut oil until the 1980s, when soybean oil drove coconut producers
out of business," BYU student and Hyde Park native Allyson Frankman
said. "Farmers and processors were devastated, and the economy has
never really recovered, but the coconuts are still there — they litter
the ground."
Tongans use diesel for cars, boats, the generators that provide
electricity and the pumps that provide clean water to their homes. And
diesel costs at least $4.20 a gallon there.
With vegetable oils being converted into biofuels all over the
world, a Tongan family, the Haveas, approached BYU professor Randy
Lewis about the possibility of using coconut oil.
At about the same time, Frankman and another chemical
engineering student, Mapleton's Jacob Jones, decided to launch a BYU
chapter of Engineers Without Borders.
"We wanted to see the College of Engineering and Technology more
involved in humanitarian efforts," said Frankman, 25, who is seeking a
Ph.D. "We're taught ideals of service and charity at BYU and have this
technical skill, but we don't have opportunities to use that technical
skill in service very often."
Frankman and Jones approached the faculty with an idea for a
class. BYU created an engineering elective called "Global Projects in
Engineering and Technology."
More than 30 students signed up and spent the winter semester
studying coconuts and creating reactors that mix the oil with methanol
and sodium hydroxide and convert it into clean-burning fuel.
The team used 10 coconuts to make a liter of diesel. Coconut oil
is extracted from the meat, or copra, of the plant by grating, drying
and pressing it.
After the semester, 27 students traveled to Tonga. From May
8-22, they trained Tongans to use the reactor. They also showed their
work to schools and government officials. The highlight of the
demonstrations was when BYU students cranked up a diesel engine with a
fresh batch of coconut biodiesel.
The students left behind one reactor capable of making 40
gallons a day, Jones said.
Frankman said coconut biodiesel will be cheaper than diesel
fuel, unless the Tongan government taxes it too high.
A spokesperson for the Tongan Minister of Land, Survey and
Natural Resources said Tonga wants to pursue biodiesel.
"If it will be proven cheaper, then it can be produced locally,
with a minimum import of methanol and sodium hydroxide," the
spokesperson said. "It will be a form of employment and can be
exported to other countries that produce biodiesel, which in turn can
boost the exportation level."
Jones, 24, and four other students plan to be involved. He
earned a bachelor's degree in April but is part of Motu BioFuels, a
student startup company that won first place in BYU's Social Venture
They plan to use the $4,000 first prize to scale up coconut
biodiesel production in Tonga.


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