Degreasing the Campus: Chemical Engineering Students Convert Used Cooking Oil to Biodiesel using a Green Process

Every month, the cafeteria in Sunway campus generates about 100kg of used cooking oil that is considered as a waste product. The used cooking oil is harmful to health if it is recycled for cooking, and it causes serious environmental pollution if it is disposed into the drains and landfills.

Since January 2018, a team of chemical engineering students from Monash IChemE Student Chapter (MISC) Sunway Campus has embarked on a year-long pilot project to convert the used cooking oil generated on-campus to biodiesel. The project is undertaken under the guidance of Professor Chan Eng Seng from Chemical Engineering and Monash-Industry Palm Oil Research Platform (MIPO).

Conventionally, biodiesel is produced via a one-step reaction process using an alkaline catalyst. However, used cooking oil is a low-quality feedstock which contains a varying amount of free fatty acids and water content. These impurities create problems during biodiesel production. They generate a large amount of by-product (i.e. soap) in the presence of alkaline catalyst during reaction, thus lowering the process yield and at the same time, producing a large volume of wastewater during purification.

In order to overcome these problems, a cost-effective lipase enzyme has been chosen as the catalyst. The enzymatic reaction can also be carried out at a near-ambient temperature, thus substantially reducing the amount of energy required to drive the reaction. The reaction and purification processes have been performed using a 50-L integrated enzymatic reactor designed and developed by Professor Chan and his team.

During the course of the project, the students have been tasked to manage a variety of activities. The activities include material sourcing and procurement, logistical arrangement, inventory management, plant operation and process optimisation, safety review, waste management and valorisation, production costing and product application.

"We are very excited to have this opportunity to work on a project that addresses a real-world problem and mimics the operation of a real chemical plant. We have not only gained hands-on experience operating a mini chemical plant, but also learned to manage a chemical business. This project definitely complements our learning experience and prepares us to become better engineers. I hope the project can be expanded to benefit more chemical engineering students." said Mr. Lee Chin Loong, the President of Monash IChemE Student Chapter and a second-year Chemical Engineering student at the Sunway Campus.

The biodiesel produced by the team is currently being tested for its performance in generating electricity for a designated area on campus. More student volunteers will be needed to share the expanding workload and to ensure the continuity of the project.

This project is an initiative supported by Chemical Engineering and MIPO at Sunway Campus with the goals to improve student experience via experiential learning based on real-life problem and to support campus sustainability initiative to reduce, reuse and recycle wastes generated on-campus.

For interested students and parties, please contact:

Professor Chan Eng Seng (chan.eng.seng@monash.edu)