Lyman students make their own biodiesel fuel

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Lebanon - posted Wed., Apr. 17, 2013
Stephen Grabber pours biodiesel into an engine as fellow Lyman students (l-r): Ajay Gonnelli, Dalton Miller and Jacob Berentsen look on. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Stephen Grabber pours biodiesel into an engine as fellow Lyman students (l-r): Ajay Gonnelli, Dalton Miller and Jacob Berentsen look on. Photos by Melanie Savage.

Lyman Memorial High School Agricultural Science teacher Geoffrey Picard is always looking for new ways to stretch the budget and bring new opportunities to his students. He started up the Lyman sugar house, which gives students hands-on experience in forestry and sugaring. He acquired a bee hive to give students experience with honey production. Picard successfully rounded up a number of donated canoes and kayaks, which are used for educational excursions. Over the spring and summer of 2011, Picard and a student planted more than 30 young fruit trees, which are used for hands-on teaching. In early 2012, Picard succeeded in getting Briggs and Stratton to donate seven brand new engines to the program, for students to use during a course on small engines.

Recently, Picard reached out to Clean Air Cool Planet, a non-profit in New Hampshire. He succeeded in procuring a grant which he used to purchase a biodiesel fuel processor. “It took us about two weeks to put it together,” said Picard the morning of April 12. Just the day before, “We actually had this engine running on [the biodiesel that the students produced],” said Picard, indicating a small, single-cylinder diesel engine sitting on a worktop in the school’s vo-ag workshop.

“We used the used vegetable oil from the cafeteria, which they used to just throw away,” said Picard. The process involves sodium hydroxide and methanol. “After they combine you have to let it sit for a while,” said Picard. The mixture produces glycerin as a byproduct, which can be used for other projects. The biodiesel is washed three times to remove impurities, excess water is evaporated off, and the finished product is then ready to use. The processor is capable of producing 35 to 40 gallons of fuel at a time, said Picard, which can be used either mixed with conventional diesel or alone, to run diesel engines. “As far as I know, we’re the only ag center that makes biodiesel at this magnitude,” said Picard.

The students planned to test their fuel further on the single-cylinder engine, before using it to run their tractor. But first they needed to get the engine started. After several pulls and a few tense moments, the engine fired up and purred merrily away. The smoke it emitted smelled nothing like conventional diesel. “It smells like food,” said Kate Nichols, a Lyman senior.

“And it’s better for the environment,” said senior Celine Sicard.

“It teaches the kids about different kinds of alternative fuels,” said Picard. “I think they really got the message that it burns cleaner than traditional diesel.”

Picard said that the student’s first batch of biodiesel cost approximately $4.60 per gallon to make, a bit more than the current retail cost of diesel at about $4 per gallon. “We could reduce that if we buy our chemicals in bulk,” he said.

As one of 19 Connecticut comprehensive high schools hosting a regional vocational-agriculture center, Lyman Memorial High School draws students from 13 different towns. Students in the agriculture program learn about “the science and technology behind agriculture,” according to the center’s website (, and can choose among courses focused on plants, animals, natural resources and mechanics.

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