283554 Introducing Freshman Students to the Multi-Faceted World of Engineering and Sustainability Through Biofuels Synthesis From Waste Cooking Oil

Wednesday, October 31, 2012: 9:14 AM
329 (Convention Center )
Justinus A. Satrio, Chemical Engineering Department, Villanova University, Villanova, PA and Laura-Ann Chin, Chemical Engineering, Villanova University, Villanova, PA

Well-designed first year experience courses are mainstays in the curriculum for freshman engineering students, as well as for freshman in other fields. First year courses are building blocks in helping a freshman navigate through and discover a new major. It is imperative for a freshman to be exposed to different engineering disciplines to experience first-hand the expectations and variations among them.

VU Engineering has strategized this teaching opportunity through a series of freshman mini projects designed by different engineering majors. The curriculum begins with a seven-week core course that incorporates engineering fundamentals with hands-on group micro-projects that brings classroom lessons to life. Following the core course, the students are presented to select two of six interdisciplinary, hands-on mini projects that expose students to a minimum of two major disciplines each throughout the second half of the fall and the first half of the spring semester. Mini projects offered include:

·         Application of Acoustic Technologies for Predicting Structural Failure

·         Biofuels Process and Sustainability:  Biodiesel Synthesis from Waste Cooking Oil

·         Electric Car Design

·         Robotics and MATLAB Programming

·         The Load/Deflection Character of a SMARTBEAM

·         Adsorption – Drinking Water Treatment Process

 By mid-second semester, students select their intended major discipline and spend the remaining seven-weeks in the chosen disciplinary field.

This paper will be focused on the Biofuels Process and Sustainability mini project, which started to be offered in Fall 2011 semester. This project was developed with the idea of making our young students to be aware of the changes in our society.  In responding to the need of our reliance to non-renewable fossil fuels due their depletion and primarily due their negative impacts to our environment, our society is slowly moving into an era of so-called bioeconomy, where we attain vital sources of carbon and energy from biorenewable materials, such as biomass.  It is very crucial that future generations of our students embrace this transformation. For this to happen, our students first need to learn about various aspects involved in bioeconomy.  This mini project exposed Villanova freshman engineering students to two very important aspects in bioeconomy, i.e. how transportation liquid fuels can be produced from biorenewable materials and the sustainability issues related to how biofuels are produced and utilized. Specifically, the goal of this project is for students to use basic engineering and chemistry principles to synthesize and characterize biodiesel from a renewable resource, i.e. waste cooking oil from VU dining centers, use the experimental data to design a biodiesel processing plant and finally assess the sustainability of the process.

The 7-week freshman engineering project was presented as a combination of lectures and in class group exercises on various aspects on biofuels production and sustainability. Hands-on laboratory experiments on biodiesel synthesis and characterization, analysis on energy usage and heat transfer of the synthesis process, and the synthesis of soap from glycerin by-product were performed in the weeks following the lectures. Students go through the elementary transesterification of WCO into biodiesel while producing a by-product of glycerin.  From the experiments, students prepared laboratory reports, one on the chemistry and mass balance aspects of biofuels synthesis and the other the energy and heat transfer aspects of the biofuels synthesis. The report preparation involves students to conduct technical literature searches, perform data collection, and use spreadsheets to analyze data and perform numerical analysis In addition to the chemistry and heat transfer aspects of biodiesel production; the element of entrepreneurship is also incorporated in the soap production via glycerol byproduct. Students are also exposed to scale-up of lab synthesis to a commercial level of a biodiesel production facility. The schedule of learning activities and gained skills from each activity are described in the Table below.



Learning Activities

Learned Skills


-    Introduction to processes of biofuels production and concept of sustainability. 

-    Sustainability and carbon foot prints: how much CO2 does my household emit per year? Develop carbon footprint calculator.

Concepts on biofuels production and sustainability, carbon foot print, programming using Matlab , ethics, basic organic chemistry


Introduction to mass & energy balances and  heat transfer phenomena

Concepts of mass & energy balances and heat transfer phenomena, math


Going to the lab: making biofuels and collecting experimental data

Laboratory skills, collecting data, team work, time management


Going to the lab: characterizing biofuels and collecting experimental data

Laboratory skills, collecting data, team work, time management


-    Analyzing data and using data to prepare a report on energy and heat transfer.

-    Utilizing byproduct: soap making

Data analysis, math, team work, computation, time management, laboratory skills, report writing.


-    Analyzing data and using data to prepare report on chemistry and mass balance.

-    Lecture and in class activity: Concept of entrepreneurship.

Data analysis, math, team work, computation, time management, report writing. Concept of entrepreneurship, brain storming, oral presentation.


Final presentations: poster and final report

Oral presentation, team work, time management, poster preparation, executive summary writing.

The freshman engineering project on biofuels was also developed in conjunction with the on-going student-run Villanova Biodiesel program in the department of chemical engineering.  In the 2-year old biodiesel production program, students operate a biodiesel production facility located in the department of chemical engineering's unit operation lab to convert waste cooking oil to into biodiesel.  The production facility has the capacity to process all of the approximately 7000 gallons waste cooking oil that is produced from the dining service yearly.  Currently, only about 10-15% of the waste cooking oil is processed for biodiesel production.  In order to increase the capability of the facility to produce more biodiesel, more student participations are needed. The proposed mini project can serve as a recruiting tool by introducing new engineering freshman students to various aspects involved in the production of biofuels, which will make the students better prepared should they decide to participate in the Villanova Biodiesel program.

Overall, the freshman mini project is geared to provide engineering students with motivation for the consideration and recognition of engineering design and development examples in daily life. Apart from introducing students to a variety of engineering design and development tools, the mini projects have been a seed in helping students decide early on in their journey for a successful undergraduate career.



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