UConn professor seeks to turn grease into fuel

Associated Press Modified: November 24, 2012 at 11:16 pm •  Published: November 24, 2012
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STORRS, Conn. (AP) — A year ago, Richard Parnas had never heard of brown grease: sticky, stinky, remnants of sludge sucked from grease traps at restaurants, bars and commercial kitchens. The glop for years has been considered useless, a common clog-inducer at sewage treatment plants, often burned as costly waste.

Parnas immediately saw the potential, one that he hopes could change the fuel industry and improve the environment. If he is correct, the University of Connecticut professor's vision also could make him and his partners wealthy.

Parnas can turn brown grease into biodiesel fuel.

The vehicle for this chemical engineer's dreams of environmental revolution is RPM Sustainable Technologies, a company Parnas founded with two partners, Fred Robson and Richard Madrak, to break into the national biodiesel market. At the moment, the company's base is a lab at the edge of the UConn campus, where a metal machine of large tanks and gurgling tubes transforms grease into fuel.

This spring, a machine just like it will be hooked up to the Torrington wastewater treatment plant, a designated "FOG" facility, or one that accepts the region's fats, oils and grease. The city agreed to serve as temporary sales model for Parnas, whose plan is to sell his equipment, and its maintenance, to municipalities, universities or anyone interested in making biodiesel. UConn is currently using the biodiesel Parnas creates to run its campus shuttle buses.

The machinery and the chemistry it encourages inside can make any common source into biodiesel. Parnas, however, is pushing brown grease, because he strongly believes that potential food sources such as soybean and corn should be used to feed the world, and not run cars and buses. Also, the putrid grease, laden with heavy metals, exists as an environmental hazard, he said.

Turning it into biodiesel changes a problem into an asset, something that can run your Volkswagen instead of being burned or buried in a landfill. Torrington spends $9,000 a year burning its brown grease in Waterbury. "You just blow all those heavy metals out into the air," Parnas said. "We will have a much bigger impact on the environmental problem than on the fuels market. We will convert the environmental problem into a high quality fuel that will be worth money."

Customers will buy the machinery and then own the biodiesel they produce. Parnas said he could not provide what the machinery could cost; the company is too new, he said, and it might depend on size and orders. There are projects in the works, he said.

On a recent afternoon at the lab, two doctoral students in lab coats hurried about the machine, responding to beeping alarms and emptying buckets of glycerol, a byproduct of the process. The prototype pumped out one gallon of biodiesel every four minutes, in one session making enough to propel a diesel Volkswagen Jetta about 40 miles.

The doctoral students, Iman Noshadi of Iran and Baishali Kanjilal of India, are researching further uses of the glycerol byproduct. Noshadi said it is worth maybe 50 cents a gallon as a raw chemical but with further research and chemistry it can be turned into high value chemicals used in labs that sell for between $3,000 and $5,000 a gallon. He said with their research they want to create a process where there is no waste.