MIT's biodiesel team plans on return trip to Brazil

By Luke Geiver | February 28, 2011

Put Brazil on the list of project locations for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s biodiesel team, called Biodiesel@MIT, which is working to implement a greater use of waste vegetable oil-based biodiesel in campus shuttles.

The team has future plans to return to Sao Paulo this spring to continue its previous work in helping garbage pickers utilize WVO for fuel. Last summer, four members of MIT’s biodiesel team, along with two instructors, a foreign exchange student from Sao Paulo and others, spent three weeks in Brazil helping the catadores, or garbage pickers who sort garbage looking for sellable recyclable materials, convert their diesel engines into WVO-powered engines.

“Currently the workers spend 20 percent of their operational costs on diesel fuel,” said Angela Hojnacki, president of Biodiesel@MIT. “By decreasing that cost (through WVO), we can raise their income, which is less than $7 a day.” Hojnacki said that for the majority of three weeks, her team, led by Libby McDonald from the school’s department of Urban Studies and Planning, prepped for a three-day workshop that focused on the collection of WVO, and the conversion and filtration requirements for the engines. “We held it in one of the waste picker cooperatives where they collect different recyclables and waste and then sell it for income,” she said. “The waste pickers we were working with were really excited about the project. A lot of them got involved in the conversion, and,” she said, “they are still using it today.”

The team from MIT had to work through language and cultural barriers, she said, and also finding the right material to convert the engines. They converted the trucks by installing separate fuel tanks and delivery systems, a set of valves to allow the vehicles to run on either diesel or WVO, all by using, in some cases, old metal street signs.

The Green Grease project first started after the team from MIT won a $3,000 grant. Through previously established relationships between several Brazil-based groups, including garbage picker unions, the project got its start. Now, the MIT team is fundraising to pay for a return trip to Sao Paulo. “We have kind of shifted our focus,” she said. “We were working on the collection and filtration piece, and now we are [trying] to work within the regulations of Sao Paulo about storing and collecting WVO,” adding that they will also help the garbage pickers understand the safety issues and available ways to collect the WVO.

In the U.S., the team uses a 70-gallon reaction tank to produce ASTM spec biodiesel for on-campus use, and the group is looking for new off-campus users as well. As for the work in Sao Paulo, Hojnacki said that reducing operational costs doesn’t represent the only benefit to the garbage pickers. “It’s also an educational skill,” she said, “providing them a new skill and status within their community.”

To fund the second trip, the team is writing proposals for a number of different MIT-based grants, organizing a silent auction and reaching out to corporate sponsors willing to participate in the project through donating equipment parts or financial donations.

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