GVSU Eyes Biodiesel For Vessels

December 6, 2002
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MUSKEGON — A drive to convert two Grand Valley State University research vessels to run on biodiesel fuel could serve as a prelude toward the greater use of the cleaner-burning fuel by boaters.

As part of the effort, GVSU’s Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon plans to conduct a regional market study with marinas to gauge the interest among boaters on Lake Michigan, from White Lake to Saugatuck, on whether they’d use biodiesel, which has begun to catch on for use in machinery and some vehicles but not for boats.

“We want to get an idea for what the market really might be for biodiesel,” said Bob Udell, a retired aerospace engineer for Eaton Aerospace in Grand Rapids who joined GVSU in August to spearhead the initiative.

“The marine applications are pretty slim so far,” said Udell.

Biodiesel is made from plant-based sources such as soybeans and burns much cleaner than petroleum-based diesel fuel. Diesel engines can burn biodiesel without modifications, leaving the logistical and economic issues related to the handling of biodiesel fuel as the primary hurdles to overcome, Udell said. A feasibility study is ongoing, he said.

Converting GVSU’s two research vessels — the 65-foot W.G. Jackson moored at the Lake Michigan Center in Muskegon, and the 45-foot D.J. Angus based in Grand Haven — holds several benefits, most notably environmental, he said.

In undertaking the initiative and converting the two vessels, the Annis Water Resources Institute is following through on its stated mission to preserve, protect and improve natural resources.

“We’re running two of the dirtiest engines out there you could imagine,” said Udell, a research assistant and biodiesel analyst for the Annis Water Resources Institute. “It’s why we exist. We’re trying to get our own act cleaned up ourselves. We’re trying to live up to our mission.”

By doing so and switching to biodiesel for the Jackson and Angus, the institute could “be a role model for other people to clean up their act” as well, he said.

Options for accomplishing the immediate goal vary.

One possibility is a cooperative venture with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration station in Muskegon that operated its research vessel, the Shenehon, on biodiesel last year.

Another option is for GVSU to build its own fueling station in Muskegon, or recycling the fryer oil from the university’s cafeterias that generate about 5,200 gallons of oil a year. GVSU’s research vessels use about 5,000 gallons of fuel annually.

Beyond the environmental benefits, Udell sees a boost for farmers through the greater use of biodiesel. Farmers who grow applicable crops such as soybeans would have a new market to serve, he said.

“If we could become a player for getting more use in this area, there’s opportunity for new business to soybean growers,” he said.    

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