Did you know that various waste oils like used vegetable oil, canola oil and grapeseed oil can be converted to biofuel that can actually run diesel engines? It sounds like something straight out of the future, and the future is exactly what the University of Findlay and Columbia Gas of Ohio are looking toward with the recent acquisition of a 30-gallon reactor and a generous grant for waste to energy education.
Paul Waldman, a teacher at Millstream Career Center, donated the reactor, and Columbia Gas of Ohio came through with a $45,000 grant made possible by the NiSource Foundation. According to Dan Creekmur, President of Columbia Gas of Ohio, Columbia Gas and NiSource serves more than 1.4 million customers in Ohio. “It is truly important to us to be able to give back and be involved with the cities that we live and work in,” Creekmur added. “We’re hopeful that this collaboration with Findlay will spark an interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] careers while encouraging the students, the teachers and the community to really reduce their carbon footprint. We’re very thankful for the opportunity.”
With the reactor and grant in place, UF can help the surrounding community, including teachers and students, to learn about sustainability with direct, hands-on experience. Dr. Nathan Tice, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry at UF, and Dr. Tim Murphy, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of UF’s Environmental, Safety and Occupational Health Management Program also share a mutual interest in bringing this idea of sustainable energy to the University because UF has a sustainability minor available. “Places are interested in and hiring sustainability positions, so there’s definitely some interest beyond the University,” Tice said.
The grant will cover various necessities that make working with the reactor possible, such as getting students from the ESOH, Chemistry and Education programs to help build curriculum so that community teachers can be brought to UF to participate in corresponding educationalworkshops, giving schools stipends to cover the teachers’ participation and basic supplies. Julia Harris, a junior in the ESOH program at UF, said that the grant will be a wonderful opportunity for area high schoolers. “Usually high school students don’t get this type of hands-on sustainability outreach in the classroom,” she explained. “There are a lot of advanced placement science classes, but none that really focus on renewable energy. Here, though, students will get to see how they, themselves, can have an impact on sustainability and then they might even choose to go on into a STEM career.”
The grant from Columbia Gas and NiSource, the parent company of Columbia Gas, will ultimately provide each teacher with a $1000 stipend to use for their school’s labs, workshop credit toward a degree and/or paying for a substitute teacher, thus eliminating affordability concerns. “Science and its experiments are expensive, especially compared to other areas of study,” Tice said. “This stipend from the grant can help to stock labs with the necessary equipment among other things. We’re grateful for the grant because we don’t want money to be the barrier to learning.”
“The grant offers much needed funding to provide energy curriculum to high school science teachers and therefore high school students,” added Murphy. “Many students at both the high school and university level do not know where their energy comes from. Our goal with the grant is to educate the students who are or will be consumers of energy so that they can make a more informed decision when they purchase the energy they use at home and at work.”
The workshops will fall under the “Waste to Energy Education: Applications in Future Energy Leaders” program and, with the assistance of UF faculty and students, will focus on getting community teachers on campus to learn and develop their own curriculum and take it back to their respective schools. The conversion of oil to fuel provides the kind of experiential learning that students might not normally be involved in, and that ignites interest in subjects like science. According to Tricia Valasek, University of Findlay’s grant manager, proficiency for students in sciences is far below other subjects. “Often,” Valasek said, “schools can’t afford equipment, their labs are struggling due to this lack of equipment and, consequently, there may not be a lot of hands-on opportunities for students to learn.”
With the Waste to Energy program in place, teachers and students can see and participate in the type of science that can and will inevitably better their environment. “The estimated 2.7 billion pounds of waste food grease or oil generated in the USA is disposed of in landfills or dumped down the drain. Reclaiming the oil as an energy source is a much more beneficial use of the used oil,” Murphy explained.
Currently, there is a great deal of interest in sustainability, and, thanks to the hospitality of Columbia Gas of Ohio, NiSource and its charitable foundation, students in the community who are particularly interested in STEM will now have the chance to immerse themselves in the promising and important future of renewable energy. The generosity felt through the help of the donation and grant exemplifies the types of relationships that UF seeks to build—those that help the University realize its potential to build meaningful lives through education and an interest in changing the world for the better.