Going Green With Grease

Can the amount of French fries consumed in the Mount Mercy Dining Center positively impact the environment, increase the educational opportunities for students and reduce institutional costs?

It sure can — just ask Will Kirkland.

Kirkland, Ph.D., and a small group of natural science students have spearheaded an effort to create biodiesel fuel out of the cooking oil used in the cafeteria. With ingenuity and passion, Kirkland and his students are tapping into this rich internal resource to open the door to a multitude of educational experiences.

The same grease that fried your mozzarella sticks in the Hilltop Grill is the same substance that is now powering Mount Mercy’s conventional, diesel-burning maintenance vehicles.

“It all started over a lunch conversation in the cafeteria, believe it or not,” says Kirkland. The theoretical discussion snowballed into more progressive plans, and the group turned the ìwhat ifî conversation into reality. In less than two years, Kirkland and his students put together a plan to create renewable energy that is consistent with Mount Mercy’s sustainability goals and saves the College some expenses.

From the start, Kirkland knew that input from the community and those interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) initiatives would be advantageous. With help from Grant Development Specialist Marilyn Lefebure ’81, Kirkland reached out to Cedar Rapids business leaders to help fund the project, dubbed “REACH Mount Mercy.” REACH is an acronym for Renewable Energy Alternatives Can Help.” The idea caught on quickly, and Mount Mercy was awarded grants through the Rockwell Collins Green Communities Grant and by the GP Fund for the Environment of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation. Support on campus was also essential, and the Mount Mercy Student Government Association (SGA) enthusiastically donated the organization’s extra funds to ensure that Mount Mercy could purchase the equipment necessary to transform cafeteria leftovers into fuel for campus-owned vehicles.

“Too often the only thing holding a project back is money, and this case seemed to be no exception,” says SGA President Beth Samek, a senior from Cedar Rapids. “Since this project will provide many opportunities both for the faculty and students through hands-on experiences as well as provide benefits to our environment, this opportunity [to give] seemed like a no-brainer.”

The project officially kicks off this fall. As the students become more engaged in the process, Kirkland and Vice President for Finance Barb Pooley estimate that the creation of the biodiesel will result in an annual savings of more than $1,000 to the institution, replacing 61% of the petroleum based fuel used by Mount Mercy’s maintenance vehicles. Additionally, with some minor additional treatment, the byproduct of creating biodiesel fuel, biodegradable glycerin, can be utilized in Mount Mercy yard composts.

Dave Dennis, director of facilities, and members of his department who oversee maintenance, are excited to be on the receiving end of the project. “Not only does the conversion of the cooking oil to biodiesel help the environment, it shows our students, staff and faculty that small changes can lead to greater self-sufficiency and savings, and it gives our students a really unique educational opportunity. I can’t think of a more worthy project.”

Kirkland is excited for the opportunities the endeavor will provide students, particularly those interested in finding and creating new ways to save energy and conserve natural resources. He plans to offer a new course in Winter Term 2011 on biodiesel fuel.

The professor also feels that the project could benefit other students in the local community — not just those at Mount Mercy. “Down the road I’d like to create workshops for local high school students so we can begin promoting a better stewardship of the environment and find better uses of energy,” he says. The educational impact the endeavor will have on students is important to Kirkland, who wants to use as many students as he can during the process. “Education is our primary function at Mount Mercy, and this education is worth offering our students,” he says. “It’s important to have student involvement with a critical issue that society is struggling with. Environmentalism is relevant to so many things, it’s only appropriate to expose students to it and get them involved.”

Samek echoes Kirklandís enthusiasm. “We must tip our hat to Dr. Kirkland and the students who have been so instrumental in all of this. They had the vision to turn what most thought to be useless cooking oil waste into a way to power the College’s maintenance vehicles.”

While the production of biodiesel will be small on campus at first, and taking place primarily in the warmer months, Kirkland is focused on the big picture. “Sure, it’s a small step, but it ís a beginning,” he says.