UNH, Conway firm team up on automated biodiesel project

With hardware and process control designs completed and testing begun, students in the University of New Hampshire’s Chemical Engineering Department next year plan to add automation equipment to the manual processor at the Woodman Farm on campus and produce biodiesel.

Under the guidance of Professor Ihab Farag, the students will use the automated processor to turn waste vegetable oil into biodiesel fuel that could be used in university vehicles and other diesel-powered engines — or anywhere that heating fuel is used on campus.

While UNH will save money because it will not have to pay a waste collector to haul away the spent cooking oil, and it will have to buy less biodiesel for its vehicles, the greater benefit may well belong to the university’s industry partner in the project, MBP, Bioenergy LLC of Conway. 

MBP’s original patent-pending design, the Weevo processor, is a small manually operated unit with a range of commercial applications, depending on the amount of waste vegetable oil produced annually, the availability of labor and a use for the finished product, biodiesel.

The company’s president, Jim Proulx, said he knew it would capture a much larger market if it could be automated. He turned to Farag and UNH for the engineering and computer expertise to take his product to the next level. In less than a year of tinkering and trial-and-error, they found that automation was feasible.

The company’s Weevo processor is the only “micro machine” on the market at a price that yields a reasonable return on investment and is capable of converting waste vegetable oils or equivalent feedstock oils into biofuel that meets the industry standard for quality, said Proulx. Automation will reduce labor, increase production and allow for remote monitoring, all of which are significant advantages for small-scale producers, he said.

With proof-of-concept in hand, and a projection of the potential market, the firm received a $40,000 grant from the New Hampshire Industrial Research Center, which covered research expenses at the university, and it was matched by contributions from MBP. One year later, the project is nearly complete and Proulx is impressed with the efforts of the students and the results.

“Our work with Dr. Farag’s team at UNH will help us to expand our product base, increase our market opportunities, and empower our firm to meet the increasingly challenging demands of biodiesel producers worldwide,” said Proulx. MBP projections call for placing 20 processors in each state within the first year of commercial production, with a processing goal of 5 to 30 million gallons.

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