Honored in the EPA’s P3 competition in Washington, DC, last May were biodiesel team members Katy Janda, Sam Merrett ’05, Isabel Call ’05, Loren Andreas ’06, Andrew Prober ’07, Julia Holland ’07, and Lina Yamashita ’08; community member Ben Ezinga ’01; Bryan Burgess of Burgess Electric; and Ian Warren from Hampshire College.

Full Circle Fuel
When Merrett was a junior, he and Janda received funding from the American Public Power Association and the Environmental Protection Agency’s “People, Prosperity, and the Planet” (P3) student-design competition for sustainability. Drawing on lessons learned from the winter-term prototype, the P3 team, along with Professor of Biochemistry Albert Matlin, built a mobile, community-scale biodiesel processor in Oberlin.

Once a week, Merrett fired up his truck, modified to run on pure vegetable oil, and headed out to collect used cooking oil in five-gallon buckets from restaurants around town. The strained and reprocessed waste oil has powered cars, trucks, a Bobcat loader, and a Wood-Mizer sawmill; has heated a private home; and has been used as an industrial degreaser to clean shop tools.

“Energy use is largely invisible, and energy production is often distanced from consumption,” Janda says. “Our P3 project addressed these challenges by treating energy production and consumption as an interdisciplinary and participatory process.”

For their efforts, the group won an honorable mention in the EPA’s 2005 design competition last spring.
Even more significant for the College and the community, Merrett won a Compton Fellowship with a $36,000 purse that has enabled him to stay in Oberlin and create a biofuel resource center. To picture the center, imagine a service station that pumps biodiesel instead of gasoline. Instead of offering to change your oil, the mechanic asks if you’d like to schedule an appointment to have your car modified to run on vegetable oil. When you go inside to pay, instead of candy bars and gum, you find compact florescent bulbs and information on how to collect rainwater in your backyard. Upstairs, members of a local non-profit are brainstorming ways to close waste gaps in the community’s use of energy—and keep more energy dollars in Oberlin at the same time.

Sound far-fetched? Merrett and his business partner, Ray Holan of Biodiesel Cleveland, have already begun transforming an old Marathon gas station in Oberlin into an alternative fuel station. Since November, a small pit crew has modified more than 20 cars and trucks to run on biodiesel oil. At the pump, customers will be able to select their own blend of fuel, supplied by three underground tanks of 100 percent recycled vegetable oil, regular diesel fuel, and an ethanol blend for gasoline engines. Called the Full Circle Fuel Center, the station is among just a handful of biodiesel suppliers in Greater Cleveland. Media outlets in Ohio say it may be the first in the state to pump 100 percent recycled vegetable oil.

“Sam’s center is a perfect extension of his work and promises significant community benefits,” says Janda. “Every semester I encourage students to participate in his endeavors because doing so will give them a real opportunity to learn and make a difference in the community.”