Bronx Community College: Researcher Converts Bronx Waste to Biodiesel

January 23, 2012

At the current rate of fossil fuel consumption, it is estimated that global reserves of petroleum will be exhausted by 2050. Biodiesel, an advanced biofuel made from readily available, renewable resources is a domestic, sustainable, cleaner-burning, diesel fuel replacement that meets strict quality specifications. Within the next five years, the US, the EU, and India are expecting that approximately five percent of all road-transportation fuels will be derived from biological sources. The success of biodiesel is based on its large energy return, limited environmental impact, and utility in unmodified, standard diesel engines. In addition to its facile preparation from virgin oils (i.e. soy, canola, palm) ASTM-grade biodiesel can also be produced from recycled cooking oil (yellow grease) and rendered animal fat (lard). In fact, most small biodiesel producers rely on yellow grease as their primary feedstock. Biodiesel production of this type is particularly suited to urban environments having high concentrations of restaurants with limited resources for grease storage and disposal costs.

Enter Aaron Socha, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Bronx Community College, and founder of the BCC Biodiesel Group. His interests in biodiesel stemmed from undergraduate training at Fordham University and the New York Botanical Garden where he researched the medicinal uses of cacti. He then worked in Watsonville, CA, analyzing pesticides in food crops before beginning graduate work in his native state of Rhode Island. Aaron’s dissertation focused on new antibiotics from marine microorganisms. “Similar organisms, Aaron says “can convert plant biomass into diesel fuel!” The latter project earned him an NSF-ACC Fellowship that was completed at Brown University. “I wanted to return to my roots” says Socha, “and the Bronx is a filthy, industrial giant; the perfect place to convert waste into fuel.”

His research program provides an interdisciplinary platform for students to engage local businesses while learning essential skills in organic chemistry, engineering, automotive technology, business negotiations and sustainable urban development-while producing biodiesel fuel.  For example, a diesel vehicle was retrofitted for grease collection from local restaurants. The biodiesel fuel used to run the vehicle is produced and tested in-house.