Special facility on WKU Farm produces alternative fuel

Chris Scudder, an agriculture instructor, turns the hay to dry at the WKU Farm using a John Deere 6215 tractor run on biofuels recycled from Fresh Food Company. The biodiesel fuel reduces emissions and is cheaper than traditional diesel fuel. William Kolb/HERALD

Jessica Voorhees

Most students view the various fried foods of the restaurants on campus as a meal or a special indulgence, but for Cecilia senior Jesse Reesor they serve a whole other purpose: his job as a student worker for the engineering department.

Reesor works on the WKU Biodiesel Project, a collaboration between the agriculture and engineering departments. Students collect vegetable oil waste used to cook food from the dining halls across campus and convert it into a fuel source for the tractors at the WKU Farm. 

“We go to Garrett and DSU to pick up the waste oil every two weeks,” Reesor said.

The students transport the vegetable oil to a storage tank at the WKU Farm.

Once at the farm, they carry out the process of filtering the oil and converting it into biodiesel which takes a couple of weeks.

The biodiesel production facility has been fully functioning for about a year and is maintained mostly by student workers. 

“It’s all about teaching students how to do these things,” Kevin Schmaltz, WKU engineering professor, said. “The farm is like a huge outdoor lab.”

Joey Reynolds, who has worked on the farm nine years as an agriculture technician, said the biodiesel project has benefitted the farm. 

“It’s been a really good situation for us so far,” he said. “It’s really helped out.”

Reynolds said the biodiesel is used for five machines, four tractors and a wheel loader.

Reynolds said the biodiesel costs about $2 less than the fuel the tractors normally run on.

Jack Rudolph, agriculture department head, initiated the program in 2007 and approached Schmaltz with the idea.

Schmaltz provided mechanical engineering students to build the biodiesel facility. 

Rudolph then spoke with Aramark, WKU’s restaurant and catering contractor, which agreed to supply the vegetable oil.

Aramark District Manager Steve Hoyng said Aramark saves money because students now pick up most of the waste oil from Garrett and DSU for free, as opposed to other companies charging Aramark to pick up the oil themselves. 

The use of biodiesel fuel by the agriculture machinery also reduces carbon dioxide emissions by up to 75 percent more than standard diesel fuel.

“It reduces the carbon footprint by the university farm,” said Christian Ryan-Downing, sustainability coordinator.

Rudolph agreed.

“We’re not polluting because we’re using products we already have,” Rudolph said. 

The biodiesel project received the fourth annual President’s Award for Sustainability at a ceremony this August. 

Schmaltz hopes to expand the project  into the Bowling Green Community.

“We hope to share what we have learned with local farmers,” he said.

The project is not perfect and proves a challenge to maintain due to various problems. For example, the project cannot produce any fuel during the winter because the cold weather causes the biodiesel to gel up. 

The process must also be monitored carefully.

“We’re out there almost every day because we have to keep checking it,” Reesor said.

He said despite this, the project is still growing.

“There’s always little things to improve on,” Reesor said. “It’s slowly getting better.”