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Green Technology at the Sustainable Design Expo

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By Dan Kulpinski

(Downtoearthblog - May 12, 2006) - A Biodiesel Bus: Appalachian State University had the largest, and possibly most eye-catching, entry -- an old Mercedes microbus/van powered by 100 percent biodiesel fuel -- at the EPA's National Sustainable Design Expo this week on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Appalachian State won one of six People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) awards at the Expo, at which teams from 41 colleges displayed entries that used technology and design to develop sustainable solutions to water use, energy use, construction processes and more. The goal of sustainability is to integrate environmental, business and social goals by doing things in ways that protect the environment, but are cost-effective and improve the quality of life.

The teams had received $10,000 in grants from the EPA for their projects. The P3 winners will get up uto $75,000 to develop their programs further.

Students from Appalachian State drove the biodiesel bus from their campus in Boone, N.C., to the Expo. Their project was titled, "Closing the Biodiesel Loop: Community-based production of ASTM D6751-03 standard fuel from local waste vegetable oil." Jeffrey E. Ramsdell, associate technology professor, said the "students created a huge buzz over biodiesel" on campus. They convinced the administration at Appalachian State to switch all university vehicles over to run on 20 percent biodiesel fuel. The town of Boone uses the same fueling tank as the school, so town vehicles will have to use the biodiesel as well.

Ramsdell said the benefits of biodiesel are "greatly reduced" emissions -- although small amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants remain -- and "very close to zero" emissions of particulate matter. Biodiesel provides about the same gas mileage and horsepower as regular diesel, he said.

His students created the biodiesel fuel from waste vegetable oil combined with methanol. The process produces glycerin and biofuel; students used the glycerin to make soap.

When I visited the Expo on May 10, I also spoke to the team from Clarkson University, which is in Potsdam, N.Y., near the Canadian border. Students Scott Lewis, Matthew Williams and Bhavin Bhayani were there displaying their project -- which later won an honorable mention -- to use biodiesel fuel in Potsdam school buses, both to reduce emissions and help boost the local economy.

The idea was to use locally-grown soybeans and waste vegetable oil from local fast food places to make the biodiesel. By using 20 percent biodiesel in school buses, they found they could reduce particulate pollution by up to 10 percent and lower fossil fuel use by 19 percent. "It's a feasible and viable solution," said Lewis.

Duke University had an interesing entry as well, complete with working props. Their 'Smart House' project consisted of a solar water heater and gray water recovery system. A solar tracker -- solar panels on a swivel that could follow the sun across the sky -- heated the water going through it to 90 or 100 degrees. This water then flowed into a water heater tank, where an on-demand heater would boost the temperature higher when you wanted to take a shower. The used shower water then was captured (some heat was recovered from it first) and sent to the toilet, where it would be flushed into the sewer line.

Sophomore mechanical engineering student Jeff Schwane explained that the innovations Duke used included solar panels that were "lighter, made of plastic composite" (and thus less expensive than traditional panels). The students' posters claimed the whole setup only cost about $800 -- very reasonable if it's accurate. They are actually building a Smart House on the Duke campus; eventually students will live in it.

It's heartening to see a large number of colleges working on sustainability techonlogies. I think it bodes well for the future and I commend the EPA for sponsoring such a program. Maybe we'll see some of these projects enter the marketplace someday.

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