Chemistry students propose green ideas

Sean Sauro, Managing Editor

Chemistry professor Manisha Nigam said she has a passion for sustainability and green energy, so, when Pitt-Johnstown faculty decided to offer a green chemistry position, she said she was interested.

A green chemistry course Nigam offers is not focused solely on bookwork and lab experiments. It is to offer students a practical approach to clean energy.

“Collectively, (students and Nigam) came up with the idea to go beyond just book knowledge and to experiment with some green energy projects.”

These projects are not only in place to educate students, they are to also benefit the campus in lowering pollution and cutting costs, she said.

The projects include installing motion-sensor and voice-activated lights in campus bathrooms, converting used vegetable oil into biodiesel and possibly introducing organic waste compost.

“We were thinking small, but it may have a chance of going big,” Nigam said.

Junior chemistry student Brittney Rush said she is involved with the motion and voiced-activated lights project.

She said the constant energy consumption used in illuminating campus bathrooms wastes both energy and dollars and replacing them with a greener alternative would cut these costs.

“From what I calculated, on average, you can make the money (used to purchase the lighting) back in two years, and then you may begin to profit,” Rush said, adding that it may take up to five years to profit.

Similarly, Nigam said the biodiesel project also is to help the campus to be more economically and environmentally efficient.

“You know we have dining halls, and they produce waste oils,” Nigam said, “so my students did some research into how much oil is being produced.”

She said this waste oil, after a filtration process and a number of reactions, could then be converted to a usable biodiesel fuel.

The fuel could then be used to run a number of the vehicles used on campus including tractors and utility carts, Nigam said.

Junior chemistry student Kayla Harvey said some biodiesel benefits include pollution prevention, reduced exposure to toxic and hazardous chemicals and cleaner emissions.

After converting the waste oils to biodiesel, glycerol and methanol are given off as waste, senior chemistry student Evan Sawyer said.

She said these waste products could also be recycled.

“Methanol is used in the reaction to convert the oil to biodiesel,” he said, “so a thin layer of methanol we obtain can possibly be reused in the processing reaction.

“Glycerol has already been used to make soaps. The glycerol we obtain can, in fact, be used in the same fashion to make soaps that would be safe to use on campus.”

While the biodiesel project has multiple benefits, Nigam said the projects still need to be approved by campus administrators.

“It’s a pretty simple conversion, but it’s definitely not something that can be done on lab scale,” Nigam said.

“I’m really excited about it, and I hope it doesn’t just stop at the proposal level.”

The department chair, the division chair and Academic Affairs Vice President Janet Grady must approve the projects before they can be completed, Nigam said.

Nigam said Physical Plant officials have been supportive.

Assistant Facilities Directors Andrew Walbeck said the biodiesel project will benefit the Physical Plant operation.

“Right now, we pay to have all of our waste vegetable oil taken off campus, plus we’ll be able to cut down on some of our diesel fuel costs as well,” Walbeck said, adding that the biodiesel is also better for vehicles’ engines.

Nigam said the green initiative should not be limited to her chemistry class.

“The idea isn’t just to stop here. In classes like University Scholarship, why not talk about good nutrition and how important recycling is,” she said.