Campus food waste become campus soap

When students who produce sustainable energy generate a “waste product,” they don’t wash their hands of it. They wash their hands with it.

Members of the soap group of the Illinois Biodiesel Initiative (IBI), are experimenting with recipes to create functional and marketable soap from glycerin, a by-product of the reaction that produces biodiesel. The IBI is a registered student organization at the University of Illinois. Members are working to improve upon a sample of liquid dish soap that they gave to the Ikenberry Dining Hall earlier this year, as well as developing new soaps to sell to other outlets on campus.

The Initiative works under the guidance of Joe Pickowitz, environmental engineer at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois.

IBI is an independent division of the campus’s Engineers without Borders group. Its main project is to collect waste vegetable oil from campus dining halls every week and convert it into biodiesel. The Initiative then sells the biodiesel back to the university through the campus’s facilities and services department to use in its vehicles.
Founded in 2006, IBI has made soap production a crucial part of its goal as a sustainable student group since fall 2011. Because only about 80 percent of the biodiesel reaction’s yield is fuel, the soap group is in charge of utilizing the remaining glycerin.

In January, the soap group gave 45 gallons of liquid soap to the dining hall, which Pickowitz calls “the test bed for the whole project.” There, it was used as a prewash in the dish rooms—only a few hundred feet from where the soap’s parent oil may have been used to fry a batch of chicken wings.

The soap helped clean the dishes, but it left behind a residue on the dishes and in the dishwashing machine, said chemical engineering sophomore and Soap Production Officer Stephanie Roupas. The group is addressing this concern by testing and reformulating batches of liquid soap and said they hope to have a new batch ready for the dining hall before summer break. The soap group is preparing other samples for university housing as part of a proposal to replace the hand soap in dormitory bathrooms with a product that is sustainably manufactured right on campus.

Along with liquid soap, the group has been testing different recipes for solid soap. The form of the final soap product depends on which strong basic compound is used as a catalyst in the biodiesel reaction. While potassium hydroxide produces liquid soap, sodium hydroxide produces solid soap.

In the solids preparation lab at ISTC, Soap Research Lead Olivia Webb, who is a freshman in agricultural and biological engineering, demonstrates one problem with the solid soap. A recent batch has the consistency of Play-Doh, and it is difficult to remove samples from the pan.

“See, it’s not supposed to do that—where it’s sticking like that,” she says. “This is still useable as soap. It’s just not as marketable.”

Still working toward a perfect batch of soap, the group overcomes defects like this by carefully experimenting with new ingredients, different cooking times, and varying ingredient ratios.

Marketability may be difficult for the raw version of the soap, Webb says, because it’s brown and smells a bit like a fry cook after a day’s work. In an effort to make their product more appealing, Webb says they will re-batch the pan of bar soap to make it harder, so they are able to sell it on campus. They are also adding a scent to the sample that they will present to university housing to make it more attractive. Because most commercial dyes and scents are not sustainable, students have begun to color the soap with environmentally friendly products, such as algae, and are looking into using natural, essential oils rather than fragrances.

While they are developing their soap to be a more marketable product, Webb says they are not planning to sell it anywhere beyond campus this early in the game, as they strive for both environmental and economic sustainability.

“It would be a lot easier to start in the university so we have something to say [to consumers], ‘Our soap actually works,’” she remarks. “And it’s also easier to sell to people in the university because your shipping and packaging costs are low.”

Interns provide help on ISTC programs

ISTC had several student hourly workers and interns joining us for projects this summer.

• Nathan Tissier is a junior at the University of Illinois completing his degree in agriculture and biological engineering. He has been providing laboratory support in the ARIES program for several months. His current projects include speciation of arsenic compounds in Hawaiian algae and summative mass closure of biomass for energy crops. He is an avid golfer, fisherman, and other outdoor activities.

• Joe (Huizhou) Yin is working as a student hourly with B.K. Sharma. Joe is studying for his B.S. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois and expecting to graduate in May 2013. He has been working with B.K. on his research on conversion of low quality oils to lubricant base oils through chemical modification.

• Tina Dinh is working as student hourly with Wei Zheng and B.K. Sharma. Tina is a B.S. Chemical Engineering student at Illinois and is expecting to graduate in Dec. 2013. She has been working on biochar project to study its effectiveness in preventing fertilizer run-off.

• Seth Rients has working as an intern with Joe Pickowitz this summer. Seth is in the Professional Science Master’s program on Advanced Energy and Fuel Management at Southern Illinois University. He has been working on developing a variety of water reuse systems for the laboratory and building, as well as examining ways to reduce water use in the production of biodiesel at ISTC.

• Wonky Yuen is working as a student hourly with Xinli Lu. Wonky is the third year PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering, at UIUC. He has been working on groundwater availability, heating & cooling potentials for the sponsored project – Illinois Groundwater Source Geothermal Resource Mapping.

• Chris Yim is a senior at Central High School who is participating in a 4-week internship with Junhua Jiang. His research with Junhua has been on electrochemical detection of nitrite using biochar electrodes. Chris is taking part in a pilot program called the I-STEM High School Summer Research Experience which was organized by the I-STEM office on campus.

Champaign County Residential Electronics Collection, Saturday, August 4

Champaign County will offer a residential electronics collection event from 8 a.m to noon on Saturday, August 4, 2012. The drop off location is the News-Gazette Distribution Center at 3202 Apollo Drive in Champaign, IL. Click here to view a map of the location, a list of acceptable electronic items being collected, and information on what becomes of the devices that you bring in for recycling.

Champaign County hosts approximately four of these events a year. If you are unable to go to the event this Saturday, another event will be held at the same location, 8 a.m. to noon on October 13, 2012.

Between collection events, check ISTC’s Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) fact sheet on take back and donation programs for a variety of options on what to do with your unwanted gadgets. You can also always check to find recycling locations near you for a wide variety of items by entering your Zip code.

If you have any questions regarding the county collection events, call 217-328-3313.

Indoor Climate program launches new website

A new website for the Indoor Climate Research & Training (ICRT) program is now live. It is available at

The ICRT program is part of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), a division of the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) at the University of Illinois. The program began when the University of Illinois received a grant to establish a training center for those involved in the Illinois Home Weatherization Assistance Program (IHWAP). The program now has expanded to additional areas such as:

• Training and certifying assessors and others from community action agencies throughout the state who perform weatherization work on qualifying residences.
• Performing indoor air quality research on lead in paints and radon migration.
• Evaluating impacts of different ventilation standards on human health in homes receiving energy-focused retrofits.
• Evaluating the energy savings and indoor air quality impacts of retrofits performed under the Weatherization Assistance Program.
• Developing training curricula for the national home performance industry.

ICRT is headquartered in the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center building at One Hazelwood Drive on the campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. The program also has a classroom building at 2111 S. Oak Street, Suite 106 in Champaign.

International e-waste competition underway

Current college/university students and recent graduates have an opportunity to create useful and appealing products from e-waste—computers, printers, cell phones and similar materials that would normally end up in landfills. And their efforts could win them prizes.

The International E-Waste Design Competition (, allows participants will explore solutions to this problem at the local level and beyond. At the conclusion of last year’s competition, $20,000 in prize money was awarded to six teams and three honorable mentions. Prize money was contributed by corporate sponsors including DELL and Walmart. The prizes for the 2012 competition have yet to be announced. The Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) ( and the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) ( coordinate the competition.

Registration is free and opens September 1, 2012. College students and recent graduates are encouraged to submit their ideas for products or services that prevent e-waste generation through life-cycle considerations (E-Waste Prevention Category). or that incorporate e-waste components into a new and useful item (E-Waste Reuse Category). See the rules posted on the competition web site for complete details regarding eligibility and descriptions of project categories. One entry per person or team is allowed. Students are not allowed to be on more than one team, but students are allowed to submit a project with one team and additionally submit one individual project.

Registration closes November 1, 2012 and winners will be announced in early December as the finale of ISTC’s Sustainability Seminar series for Fall 2012. That series will be focused on sustainable electronics. The awards presentation will also be broadcast as a webinar.

As part of their entry, participants will upload a “video commercial” for their project to YouTube. (See “Registration” on the competition web site for complete entry requirements.) Expert jurors from industry, professional organizations, government agencies, universities and non-profits will award monetary prizes to individuals or teams in each category, for a total of six prizes. Honorary mention awards may be given at the discretion of the judges. Competition sponsors have included leading manufacturers, retailers and professional organizations, and will be listed on the competition site as they are confirmed.

Instructors at colleges, universities and trade schools are encouraged to promote this competition to their students and to consider incorporating entry into course curricula. Various institutions beyond The University of Illinois have done this over the years, particularly with industrial design courses. The competition is open to students from all disciplines. Past entries have been received from students in mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, biomedical engineering, industrial design, and fine and applied arts.

The competition began as a local event on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2009. William Bullock, a professor of Industrial Design with the School of Art + Design taught a course on e-waste issues. As part of that class, the students conducted an e-waste collection on campus to gather unused CPUs, monitors, keyboards, mice, printers, scanners and cell phones as fodder for design projects. From that, the idea for a local reuse competition was born, and the competition was open to the entire campus. In 2010, the competition expanded to a global scale where applicants were asked to submit ideas online, including videos of their entries. The competition has grown to encompass ideas for waste prevention as well as waste reuse.

E-waste is an important social and environmental issue. The U.S. EPA estimates that Americans currently own nearly 3 billion electronic products and that about two-thirds of the electronic devices removed from service are still in working order. However, only about 15% of this material is recycled while the majority is disposed in landfills.

For more information on entering the competition, incorporating it into courses, or being a sponsor, contact Joy Scrogum, SEI Education Coordinator, or at 217-333-8948. For videos from last year’s competition, see

Students seek new uses for discarded laptop computers

Is a laptop computer useless without a hard drive? A group of University of Illinois students doesn’t think so and is exploring new uses for such discarded laptops.
Laptops used by government agencies and various industries typically have their hard drives removed or destroyed before being sent to recycling. This is done out of concern for data of a secretive, sensitive, or personal nature falling into the wrong hands.

With funding provided by Dell, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) at the University of Illinois is supporting the project entitled “A New Life for Laptops.” The project is being done in conjunction with the Sustainable Electronics Initiative (SEI) at ISTC. Through this grant, SEI is challenging university researchers and students to envision untapped and underexplored uses for the valuable materials in laptops. The goal is to extend the useful life of these materials prior to recycling. Continue reading “Students seek new uses for discarded laptop computers”