From French Fries to Fuel

Each season on the popular reality show Hell’s Kitchen, chef Gordon Ramsay makes the losing team of aspiring chefs sort through the garbage generated by his restaurant. This makes for good television, because nobody wants to think about what a restaurant throws away. Nobody, that is, except Philadelphia Fry-o-Diesel (PFOD). Since 2004, this subsidiary of The Energy Cooperative, a nonprofit, has been taking waste grease from restaurants and turning it into biodiesel fuel—which burns cleaner than regular diesel.

Restaurants generate different kinds of waste grease: fryer grease, used for making French fries and other deep-fried delicacies; and trap grease, made of everything washed down the drain. Both cost money to dispose of. The National Renewable Energy Labs estimate that nationwide, the food-service industry generates 495 million gallons of trap grease every year.

A grease trap, located between the sink drain and the sewer pipe in commercial kitchens, separates grease and food solids from waste water. Trap grease is stored in a large container, usually underground and accessed by a manhole. “It’s really rancid material. It smells disgusting,” explains Emily Landsburg, manager of business development at Philadelphia Fry-o-Diesel. Typically, trap grease haulers have to pay about 8 to 10 cents a gallon to incinerate it.

“You’re burning it anyway—might as well run your cars on it,” jokes Dan Garofalo GAR’87 GPU’03 CGS’08, senior facilities planner at Penn. He’s spearheading a new collaboration in which Penn Dining Services’ waste grease will be taken to PFOD’s Kensington plant and converted into biodiesel. Plans are under way to run Penn’s fleet of diesel vehicles on biodiesel—meaning that every time someone washes a frying pan at Class of 1920 Commons, it will generate a little bit of fuel for a Penn Transit bus.

At its pilot plant in Kensington, grease pumpers drop off the cargo that they’ve pumped out of restaurant grease traps. The brown sludge goes through a process of straining, bleaching, degumming, and other chemical treatments, producing about 200 gallons of fuel per batch. Currently the plant produces a few batches per week, but the company’s goal is to establish a commercial plant with an output of 3 to 4 million gallons a year by the end of 2008.

Penn will be one of the first regular customers. “The only roadblock is availability, and we can overcome it through building our own fuel station,” says Garofalo. “We’re very seriously looking at it—we hope to integrate biodiesel as a routine part of our sustainability agenda.”

As a test, PFOD provided free fuel for vehicles in Penn’s diesel fleet for the month of June. A van, a pickup truck, and a Penn Transit bus went to Cardinal Fuel Oil in West Philly to fill up with B-20, a mix of 20 percent biosolids generated from waste grease and 80 percent petroleum. The entire diesel fleet includes Penn Transit buses, landscaping vehicles, two trash compactor trucks, snowblowers and sweepers, post-hole drillers, and pickup trucks. Eventually, the goal is to have all of these vehicles fueled by locally produced biodiesel.

Among the nation’s colleges and universities, Penn is already the largest purchaser of wind-powered electricity, which currently accounts for nearly 30 percent of Penn’s total usage. A review is under way to look at two large buildings, Wharton’s Huntsman Hall and the dental school’s Schattner Center, to determine how each building can become more energy-efficient.

Now, Penn’s latest “green” source of energy is a brown sludge filled with leftover bits of food.

—Meredith Broussard

 


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