e s f home link - e s f college of environmental science and forestry
e s f home link - e s f college of environmental science and forestry

Office of sustainabilityBiodiesel Production Program at ESF


Project Overview

The biodiesel production program was initiated under the personal direction of the college president, Neil Murphy, in 2006 in an effort towards the goal of achieving carbon neutrality for ESF. Student interest in the biofuel program at ESF played a large part in the creation of the program. Four years ago, the project was initiated with the help of a then ESF Senior, Greg Boyd, who transferred his experience making biodiesel at home to the ESF campus.

The project currently uses a BioPro 190 reactor to produce 50 gallons of B100 per week for student transport and maintenance vehicles on campus.

The Biodiesel is made from a feedstock of waste cooking oil from the neighboring Syracuse University.

Student involvement, academic advancement, and community programs are important to the project, and we currently have various classes at ESF and SU working on methods to increase efficiency, cost effectiveness, and production, an article in the Syracuse University magazine recently highlighted this partnership.

In the works are plans for creation of a biodiesel reactor with a methanol recovery unit to improve the efficiency and output of the process, a renewable fuel cooperative, and creation of renewable plastics from the glycerol waste product.

The Biodiesel Team

  • Mike Kelleher Director of Renewable Energy Systems
  • Jessica Bohn Biodiesel Production Manager, Graduate Student, Ecological Engineering
  • Dr. Christopher Nomura Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry and Advisor to the Biodiesel Program
  • Dr. Neal Abrams Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry and Advisor to the Biodiesel Program
  • Dan Nicholson Graduate Student, Bioprocess Engineering and Advisor to the Biodiesel Program

For questions about the project please e-mail us at biodiesel@esf.edu.

Production Process

Student Volunteers and an overseeing ESF Employee collect waste cooking oil from kitchens at neighboring Syracuse University.

The waste oil is transported in 55 gallon barrels back to the ESF campus for processing. The oil is used as a triglyceride feedstock for the biodiesel reaction.

The process used to make biodiesel, is called transesterification. This chemical reaction breaks the triglyceride into fatty acid and glycerol components. The glycerol is removed, and the remaining fatty acids are transformed into smaller and more combustible molecules, creating a more flowing, energy dense fuel.

The reaction requires:

  1. Triglycerides: Virgin Vegetable Oil, Waste Vegetable Oil, and/or Animal Fat
  2. Alcohol: Ethanol or Methanol
  3. Catalyst: A Strong Base (NaOH or KOH)

a student working on a machineOnce water is removed from the oil feedstock, the waste oil is placed in a reactor that heats and agitates it. Then, methoxide, a solution of methanol and sodium hydroxide (NaOH) are added. The catalyst base (NaOH) removes protons from the alcohol to form a more reactive methoxide species. The methoxide then cleaves the triglyceride (cooking oil) into methyl esters (biodiesel) and glycerol.

Our reaction process used on campus is slightly different as it uses two steps, an acid catalyzed first stage for conversion of free fatty acids, then a base, NaOH reaction. This two step process allows us to process poorer quality waste vegetable oil, as it removes the free fatty acids that have been broken off the triglyceride molecule, which can otherwise interfere with the reaction.

Biodiesel H2OThis solution is mixed together until the glycerol byproduct settles to the bottom for removal. This separation is called cracking, and shows that the reaction has been successful. The fuel is then washed with water to remove impurities and dried.

From the collection of 55 gallons of waste vegetable oil, 45 gallons of biodiesel, or B100, and 10 gallons of glycerol are produced.

Waste glycerol is non-toxic if it is purified of the excess methanol from the reaction through distillation. Once purified, glycerol can be used to produce soaps, renewable plastics, or sold. It can also be composted, or put through an anaerobic digester for methane production.

Currently ESF is working on creating a methanol recovery system for waste glycerol, so this by-product can be used rather than disposed of.

Properties and Uses


On the ESF campus all diesel vehicles run on B20, a blend 20% biodiesel and 80% diesel year round. Transportation of students to the Adirondack Biological Center, the Ranger School and other remote locations are fueled by be used in any diesel vehicle with minimal or zero alterations. On some older vehicles, fuel lines may become degraded because high concentrations of biodiesel can act as a solvent, and slowly dissolve older plastics. However, on all campus vehicles, biodiesel use had been successful without alteration.

Renewable fuel pumps recently installed on campus allow a custom blend of biodiesel and diesel to be used by each vehicle fueling up. Two 3,000-gallon above-ground fuel storage tanks, each with their own dispensing system to supply the college’s growing fleet of alternative fuel vehicles are currently in use. Over 34-percent of the SUNY-ESF fleet of vehicles runs on some form of alternative fuel including flex-fuel (85-percent ethanol and 15-percent gasoline), biodiesel, electric hybrids, concentrated natural gas, and propane. Each storage tank is divided into compartments; one will store ethanol and gasoline with a dispenser to produce the E-85 mixture needed for flex-fuel vehicles, while the other tank will store biodiesel and diesel with a dispenser to produce the correct mixture needed for various vehicles.

Custom blends allow a higher concentration of biodiesel to be used in summer months, and experimentation with different blends in the winter months. All diesel maintenance, physical plant, and snow removal vehicles run on a biodiesel blend year-round, with a minimum concentration of B20, or 20% biodiesel. On campus use and student transportation to remote campuses helps ESF use a much higher concentration of renewable fuels and to reach an end goal of a carbon neutral output.

Cold Weather Use

A common concern with biodiesel is use in cold weather. Biodiesel can gel at a slightly higher temperature than winterized diesel in cold weather, preventing a higher concentration to by utilized by the college in winter months. The typical gel point of B100 is 34 degrees F. Renewable fuel pumps recently installed on campus allow the mixture of biodiesel with regular diesel in any concentration, allowing use of higher concentrations in the warmer months, and experimenting with different concentrations in colder weather. The new fuel pumps will allow ESF to find the optimal concentration of biodiesel by allowing for a custom mix of biodiesel and diesel for each vehicle filling up at the pumps. Service trucks, snow removal vehicles, student transportation to remote campuses and field visits, and on campus physical plant and maintenance transportation will all be serviced with the renewable fuel pumps.

Heating Oil

Biodiesel can also be used as a home heating oil. While it contains no petroleum, it can be blended at any level with heating oil. It can be used in home heating oil systems with no modifications to the fuel tanks, pumps or burners in concentrations up to 20% biodiesel. At higher concentrations rubber seals may need to be replaced depending on the age of the heating pumps. In a community outreach program, a few local farmers are using ESF Biodiesel at 20% for home heating oil successfully. Future plans for the project involve using biodiesel in oil heaters in the Adirondack Biological Station in Cranberry Lake, NY

Energy and Pollution

The Energy content of Biodiesel is comparable to regular diesel but produces much less pollution.

Energy Content

  • Conventional Diesel: 129,500 btu/g
  • Animal Based B100: 115,720 btu/g
  • Plant Based B100: 119,216 btu/g
  • % Difference: -7.9% to -10.6%

Emissions Information

  • A 1998 biodiesel lifecycle study, sponsored by the US DOE and the USDA, concluded biodiesel reduces net CO2 emissions by 78% compared to petroleum diesel, and a 90% reduction when waste oil is used for biodiesel production
  • 50% reduction in unburned hydrocarbons
  • Reduced Carbon Monoxide and particulate matter
  • Negligible sulfur oxides and sulfates
  • Meets health effects testing requirements of the 1990 Clean Air Act
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and nitrited PAH compounds that have been identified as potential cancer causing compounds.
  • EPA test results indicate PAH compounds were reduced by 75% to 85%.

an interviewCommunity Programs

Enitiative - a Renewable Fuel Cooperative is in the works to develop a community based approach to making and utilizing biodiesel.

Michael Kelleher, director of renewable energy systems at ESF, Neal Abrams, assistant professor in the chemistry department, and Steve Lloyd and Craig Watters of Syracuse University received an Enitiative grant to work with students from Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management to develop a business which will expand and deliver ESF biodiesel. The renewable energy cooperative hopes to develop the project into a supplier of fuel for both ESF and SU campuses, and to make biodiesel more accessible to residents in the community.

Enitiative, the Syracuse Campus-Community Entrepreneurship Initiative, awarded funding for 53 new projects centered on neighborhoods, arts and culture, and technology that connect campus and community through entrepreneurship. Funding for the projects is part of a $3 million, five-year grant awarded to Syracuse University by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., as part of its Kauffman Campuses initiative. The Foundation’s vision is to foster a society of economically independent individuals who are engaged citizens, contributing to the improvement of their communities.

Community Education and Oil Collection - At the Westcott Community Center A 30 minute informative talk about the project is followed by a community oil collection where residents can bring their used cooking oil to be converted to biodiesel. Collections are held the last Monday of every month.

Local Farmers - Use of biodiesel at local organic farms for heating and farm equipment applications is currently underway at a number of area farms. Local residents and businesses are able to use ESF biodiesel after signing a waiver form and in exchange for a donation towards the program.

Stewards of Syracuse - Teaching local teenagers about renewable fuels and volunteering opportunities, students earn minimum wage and work 25 hours a week cleaning up trash, building trails, planting gardens, and this year helping with the biodiesel project. They also learn about nature in an urban environment. The program lasts 4-weeks. It's a partnership between SUNY-ESF Outreach, CNY Works, and the Syracuse Department of Parks and Recreation.

St. Patrick’s Day Parade - With an aim to encourage increased sustainability during the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, 40 gallons of biodiesel is donated to the city to be mixed with traditional diesel and used to fuel street sweepers. The sweepers work early to prepare the parade route for some 140 marching units and up to 75,000 spectators. The sweepers are busy again after the three-hour event. The donation, initiated by ESF President Cornelius B. Murphy, Jr., who was the parade grand marshal in 2007, is part of the St. Patrick’s Parade Committee’s effort to make the annual event more sustainable.

two students next to a butter structureState Fair Butter to Biodiesel - What has now become an annual activity at ESF, the recycling of the New York State Fair butter sculpture into biodiesel began in 2008 and is an anticipated event on campus. Nine hundred pounds of butter, sculpted into a tribute to New York state’s dairy farmers and positioned as a centerpiece attraction at the New York State Fair, will end up fueling the vehicle fleet at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) . College scientists, in collaboration with the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council, Inc., and the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency, make the butter into biodiesel at the production facility on the ESF campus."Thirty-seven percent of the college's fleet runs on some form of renewable energy, including biodiesel," said ESF President Cornelius B. Murphy, Jr. "Using the butter sculpture is a unique way to fuel the ESF fleet." After the fair’s 12-day run ends on Labor Day, the butter will be brought to the ESF biodiesel production facility. The first step is to clarify the butter to remove the water and milk proteins. “This separates out the triglycerides, which will be split in our reactor at ESF—a process known as transesterification—that creates the biodiesel," said Dan Nicholson, a graduate student who works in the biodiesel production facility. "The conversion will take about a week.” About nine pounds of butter are needed to make a gallon of biodiesel, so an average 900-pound sculpture yields around 96 gallons of biodiesel.

Student involvement - Students from ESF, SU, and Local High schools frequently tour the biodiesel greenhouse for a look at the process in action. Student involvement is greatly encouraged, and many of the day to day operations and improvements to the project are helped along by student volunteers and work study students.

Academic Advancements

Newly Designed Reactor

As part of a continuation of the Kauffman Grant and Enitiative program, Engineering students at Syracuse University will partner with the ESF biodiesel team in creating a newly designed biodiesel reactor. SU Engineerng students will be guided through the biodiesel production process and will be tasked with designing a more efficient reactor design based of the specifications of the ESF biodiesel team. The purpose for the new reactor is to create a more efficient continuous flow reactor, rather than the current batch system. By utilizing a continuous flow of materials for the reaction, greater efficiency and output can be achieved. Another important goal of the new reactor will be to incorporate methanol recovery and reuse into the system. Methanol recovery is currently a challenge on campus, because it requires high energy input and time for the distillation of methanol from the waste glycerol to take place. However, in an effort to produce less harmful byproducts and to cut waste in the project, a more efficient methanol recovery system will be utilized in the new system. The current Biopro190 reactor will be used for demonstration in another location.

Methanol Recovery and Glycerol Clarification

Plans are underway to incorporate a methanol recovery system into a newly designed biodiesel reactor. About 10 gallons of Glycerol are produced with each 50 gallon biodiesel batch. This glycerol contains about 2-4 gallons of methanol. Excess methanol is necessary in the biodiesel production reaction to push the reaction to completion. After the reaction, this methanol gets deposited in the glycerol byproduct. If this methanol is not removed through distillation, the unpurified glycerol can pose a disposal problem and environmental hazard. Methanol recovery is also important because once recovered, this valuable material can be reused in the production process, creating a more efficient process.

Use of Glycerol

Use of purified glycerol, the byproduct of biodiesel production, for renewable products is a goal for ESF. It is hoped that once glycerol purification is underway, student led groups and researchers will be able to use the material for soap production, renewable plastics, and other products. Renewable plastics are created from Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) which represent a polymeric intracellular carbon and energy storage reserve synthesized by a variety of microorganisms when cultured under the appropriate conditions. Their properties resemble those of petroleum-based plastics, yet are completely biodegradable. Research is focused on developing innovative ways to produce these PHA polymers and modify their composition in order to make them more amenable to commercial production. The glycerol byproduct from the biodiesel process are being investigated as a low cost substrate for large scale production of PHA bioplastics. For more information, please see Dr. Nomura’s website. Other options for on- campus recycling of glycerol include composting in an onsite compost pile, and use in an anaerobic digester for production of methane gas.

Testing for Quality

While certified ASTM testing is prohibitively expensive for small scale biofuel programs like the one on campus, in house testing is conducted on finished fuel batches to ensure quality of fuel. Flash point, gel point, methanol content, and clarity tests are conducted periodically to ensure the process is producing quality fuel.

Improved delivery and storage with renewable fuel pumps

Two 3,000-gallon above-ground fuel storage tanks, each with their own dispensing system to supply the college’s growing fleet of alternative fuel vehicles has recently been installed on the ESF campus. Over 34-percent of the SUNY-ESF fleet of vehicles runs on some form of alternative fuel including flex-fuel (85-percent ethanol and 15-percent gasoline), biodiesel, electric hybrids, concentrated natural gas, and propane. Each storage tank is divided into compartments; one will store ethanol and gasoline with a dispenser to produce the E-85 mixture needed for flex-fuel vehicles, while the other tank will store biofuel and diesel with a dispenser to produce the correct mixture needed for various vehicles. ESF students are already producing much of the biofuels for biodiesel from the used cooking oil at Syracuse University dining halls. Ethanol produced from the ESF wood-to-ethanol process will also be used for the needed flex fuel.