UMass plans to build largest biodiesel plant in N.E. area

By Kat Manser

The University of Massachusetts has ambitions to build the largest biodiesel plant in the New England region, however funding is an issue.

The plans depend on whether or not the University receives a $400,000 grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which is the state’s development agency for renewable energy that supports the use of wind, solar and other energy sources. The funds would help finance the $850,000 total construction cost of the plant.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, biodiesel is the name for an alternative fuel that burns cleanly and contains no petroleum.

Biodiesel is created by a chemical process that separates fat or vegetable oil into glycerin (found in soap and other products) and biodiesel. The resulting clean burning fuel is nontoxic and biodegradable, as well as renewable.

The National Biodiesel Board claims these traits make it better for the environment and beneficial for the U.S. economy because it can be produced from domestic renewable sources such as soybeans.

Therefore it ‘decreases our dependence on foreign oil and contributes to our own economy,’ the Board says.

They also state that, ‘biodiesel is the only alternative fuel to have fully completed the health effects testing requirements of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments,’ and that biodiesel fuel can be used in any diesel engine, with little to no modification.

The University’s own biodiesel plant would produce 600,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel each year, using recycled vegetable oil from institutionalized kitchens, according to a University statement. The plant would be housed in the campus’ current Central Heating Plant.

In a December 2008 interview with The Daily Hampshire Gazette, William C. Conner Jr., a UMass chemical engineering professor involved in securing the grant, explained that the plant would allow experimentation with more innovative ways to turn cooking and other waste oils into biofuels. Conner said that the Five Colleges would provide waste oil to the plant, and then would be able to use the biodiesel in their diesel engines.

Conner also noted that several prominent politicians, such as U.S. Senator John F. Kerry, and Rep. John W. Olver, have supported the idea of the plant through letters written to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

According to The Gazette, Olver wrote, ‘The University of Massachusetts at Amherst facility will offer local universities and state agencies an opportunity to engage in a regional effort to establish western Massachusetts as a hub for the development of renewable fuels.’

In addition to his comments regarding the plant’s research benefits, Conner said the plant ‘could save the Five Colleges money in fuel costs and oil waste disposal.’

If the $400,000 grant is secured, he added, the plant could be fully operational by September 2009.

Kat Manser can be reached at [email protected]