Vegetable oil fuels old fire truck

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- LSU students Marcus Toussaint, Kolby St. Germain, Brandi Guarino and Ian McMills, left to right,  sit on the fire truck chassis their team is retrofitting with an educational biofuels demonstration system as part of their mechanical engineering senior project. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- LSU students Marcus Toussaint, Kolby St. Germain, Brandi Guarino and Ian McMills, left to right, sit on the fire truck chassis their team is retrofitting with an educational biofuels demonstration system as part of their mechanical engineering senior project.

The fire truck sitting in a shop at LSU may not look like much, but by the end of April, it will be able to demonstrate how used vegetable oil can be turned into vehicle fuel.

At least that’s what a team of five LSU mechanical engineering students — Ian McMills, Marcus Toussaint, Brandi Guarino, Kolby St. Germain and Paul Vaugh — has taken on as a senior year project.

Each year, seniors enrolled in the program plan and carry out a team project for presentation near the end of the school year to fellow students, professors, professionals and other interested parties.

The vegetable oil fuel project, one of many that students in LSU’s Mechanical Engineering Department are working on, is an extension of an earlier team project that, in part, enabled a fire truck engine to run on biofuel.

St. Germain, one of the team members, said this year’s project is somewhat different in that the goal is to turn their project truck into an educational tool.

“We’re going more for showing people how to do it,” St. Germain said.

Student team member Guarino agreed: “Our goal is more education.”

The team sponsor, the nonprofit Greater Baton Rouge Clean Cities Coalition, wants to use the truck as part of the coalition’s three-week high school science curriculum, said Lauren Stuart, coalition executive director and program coordinator.

“The truck will be a hands-on demonstration for students of any age or the public,” Stuart said. “Over the summer, we’ll be setting up our partnerships with the high schools.”

Although the original team installed a couple of deep fryers in the demonstration truck to show where used vegetable oil came from, McMills said that this year’s team is not going to get the fryers working again.

Instead, the team plans to install multiple glass tanks that allow viewers to see how used vegetable oil changes as it goes through the process of turning into motor fuel.

The team set up a process in which the raw material — used vegetable oil — is pumped through a series of tanks, most of them transparent, while water and impurities are removed, McMills said.

The normal job of turning vegetable oil into motor fuel would take about three or four hours, McMills said, but the team members believe they can break the process down into basic steps understandable by viewers seeing the process for the first time.

Although designing the oil purification process would seem to be the most difficult part of the project, team members said one of their biggest challenges has been finding enough money to get the job done, since their sponsor is a nonprofit.

“There’s no cutting corners, but we don’t have the budget to use expensive materials,” Ian said.

St. Germain said the team could have used stainless steel, for example, but because it’s so expensive, the team went with aluminum.

There also have been learning moments along the way, moments familiar to many engineers. After taking their sponsor’s wishes into consideration, the team members initially designed a much-larger project that included a large number of components.

However, after conferring on their initial design with professors, engineers and their sponsor last fall, the team members were advised their project was too ambitious.

“In some ways, we bit off more than we could chew,” McMills said.

Guarino agreed, saying that although the Greater Baton Rouge Clean Cities Coalition asked a lot of the team, the members learned that sometimes, an engineer has to tell the clients that what they want isn’t doable.

“My aha moment,” Guarino said, “was sometimes you’re going to be asked to do something you can’t produce.”

Another challenge has been the team’s weatherbeaten 1981 fire truck. The vehicle needed upgrades to make it a viable project demonstration vehicle, team members said.

“There’s a lot of stuff just the truck needed,” Guarino said. “A lot of us didn’t know a lot about trucks before we got to this.”

Fixing the fire truck’s ailments wasn’t within their budget, timeline or scope of this year’s project, so until the truck’s mechanical problems can be resolved, the vehicle will have to stay put.

However, Stuart said, it’s still possible the fire truck could be used to demonstrate the process during the upcoming school year, but that would mean viewers would have to travel to it instead of the other way around in the short term.

Stuart said it’s possible that a new group of LSU students could address the fire truck’s mechanical problems next year in order to get this year’s demonstration project truly mobile at last.