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Consumer Reports

College researching better fuel from cooking oil | (KRT) You drive up to the order microphone at your favorite fast-food joint and ask for a cheeseburger, chocolate shake and fries. Then the speaker crackles, asking if you'd also like to fill up with biodiesel fuel made out of the restaurant's reprocessed frying oil.

Researchers at Hiram College think that might not be as farfetched a scenario as you might think.

The 900-student liberal arts college in Portage County, Ohio, is working on how to make environmentally friendly biodiesel fuel - a nonpetroleum blend of old cooking oil or soybean oil combined with methanol or ethanol and a catalyst - more useful. Navistar Corp., one of the world's largest makers of diesel engines, is funding the five-year project at a cost of about $25,000 a year.

Biodiesel isn't some cleaner-burning fuel of the future, though. It's being used now, with some proponents easily mixing the stuff in their home garages to power unmodified diesel engines. Longtime rock musician Neil Young has toured the country in vehicles fueled with a biodiesel blend.

But Hiram chemistry professor John Cragel Jr. thinks he and his undergraduate research team can do better. One big problem with biodiesel is that it spoils relatively quickly, and a second is that prolonged use of pure biodiesel may harm engines. Hiram's research will look into how to prolong the life of the alternative fuel and make it safer for engines.

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"The project is in its initial stages," Cragel said Tuesday as part of the initial kickoff of the fuel research endeavor. "If we can solve the stability problem, you have a perfect solution."

Illinois-based Navistar chose Hiram for the research project because one of its executives is a Hiram graduate, said John Horne, the company's recently retired chief executive officer and chairman. Navistar donated a mammoth six-cylinder, 466-cubic-inch diesel engine, related equipment and other funding.

"The emissions regulations keep getting tighter and tighter," Horne said.

One way to deal with that is to make engines less polluting, he said.

And the other way is to develop cleaner burning fuels, which is why Navistar and Hiram are hooking up, Horne said.

"The end is, we want to know what the best fuel of the future is," he said.

To see if biodiesel can be that fuel, Hiram's researchers need to understand the underlying chemistry of the substances that make it up, Cragel said. The research project will hit high gear after a permanent home is found for the Navistar diesel engine, he said.

Biodiesel has been made with reprocessed oil for french fries, Cragel said. The exhaust that comes from engines that burn it smells like frying potatoes, he said.

Cragel said he has made a batch using five gallons of liquid Crisco. Animal and vegetable fats - "restaurant grease" - can be made into biodiesel, he said, with most of the biodiesel powering vehicles around the United States made out of soy oil. Companies experimenting with biodiesel often use it as a blend with petroleum-based diesel, Cragel said.

Biodiesel's advantages include being biodegradable, sulfur-free, less toxic than diesel and with lower emissions for many pollutants. But biodiesel also produces higher nitrogen oxide emissions, can hurt engine performance and durability and lead to bacterial growth in engines.

Cragel hopes to find other sponsors for additional biodiesel research.

"Can we change biodiesel into biogasoline?" he said. If so, then they may be able to develop a renewable, less polluting gasoline substitute, he said.

"This can solve the energy crisis, maybe," Cragel said. "This is going to be a fun project."

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© 2004,Akron Beacon Journal Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services