'French-Fried Fuel' Powers School Buses

It's not unusual to catch a whiff of french fries and fried chicken drifting through the halls of East Burke High School in Connelly Springs, North Carolina. But you might be surprised to find out that the smell of fried food isn't always coming from the high school cafeteria. East Burke Teacher Bob Smith and his 12th grade science students are processing used grease and turning it into biodiesel in the school's science lab. What once was used by local restaurants to fry up fish, chicken and french fries can actually be processed and poured into the gas tanks of the district's school buses. Mucheng Yang, a 12th Grader at East Burke High School, thought using grease to make fuel for buses would never work.

"It has been fun doing this," Yang says. "The best part is making biodiesel and putting it in the bus and see it go off. It's just a good thing and an amazing thing to see that happen."

The process sounds complex to those who may not have a background in science. The oil is heated and poured into a simple kitchen blender where it is mixed with a compound that changes the molecular structure of the grease. The chemical mixture is then mixed or washed with water several times and the result is a yellow liquid that can be used to power the diesel engines of school buses.

"In the beginning the students wanted to call this 'The French Fry Bus.' But once you break down the grease from the local restaurant, the odor is gone because chemically you have made a different compound called biodiesel," Smith says. "So it has no odor and we named it the magic fuel bus."

Mr. Smith heard President Obama's challenge to use less fossil fuels over the coming years a step further and started toying with using cooking oil as a way to power the districts fleet of buses. The businessman, turned science teacher launched "The Magic Fuel Bus" program last year.

"We really wanted to tie into the President's Energy Plan," Smith says. "We make the biodiesel and ran it in the school buses to demonstrate that what he was talking about really worked. And we had no problems on the buses, everything worked fine."

The classroom isn't equipped to make large batches of fuel and the entire process can take up to three days, so the district buses can't run on processed cooking oil alone. But Mr. Smith and his students have whipped up enough biodiesel to be able to study the effects on the bus engines and the positive effects on the environment. So far, they say, the news is good.

"There are benefits from it. There is less odor, less pollution, less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, less global warming and it improves the mileage for the buses," Yang said.

Smith hopes "The Magic Fuel Bus" program gets some attention for this rural High School in Eastern North Carolina. His ultimate goal is to convince The President to come to Burke County to meet the students and see the buses run on cooking oil in person. He knows it's a long shot to get the attention of the White House, but at the very least he's happy with what the experiment is giving back to these students.

"Getting them interested in careers in science and engineering by doing hands on work, taking classroom lessons and applying them to a real world problem," Smith says. "They have learned a lot from this hands on activity and I am very optimistic that they will be finalists for a $100,000 college scholarship from The Siemens Corporation that they are in the running for."