Although it is similar to the smell of a busy kitchen at McDonald’s, bio-diesel fuel now being used by University buses will bring about less harmful pollutants to the air we breathe.

Shabina Khatri
University buses now use an alternative fuel made from soybean oil, which replaces the smell of burning diesel with that of fried food.

Because the fuel burning under the bus’s hood contains comparably low amounts of sulfur and contains 20 percent bio-diesel – an alternative fuel made from the oil of soybeans – the typical smell of burning diesel fuel is now replaced by one reminiscent of fried food.

The buses are a huge step for environmentally safe transportation, said University Director of Parking and Transportation Services Patrick Cunningham.

Currently, all University-owned vehicles, including the 43 buses with diesel engines use the bio-diesel and ultra-low sulfur fuel.

Bio-diesel alone produce 20 percent less emissions for the vehicle, but other changes have also been made to make the buses even more environmentally friendly.

Particulate traps, which trap and burn the particles that would ordinarily be exhausted into the air, reduce the total emissions by another 85 percent. In order to use particulate traps, the buses must also use fuel with reduced amounts of sulfur. With mixed bio-diesel and ultra-low sulfur fuel going into the engine and fewer harmful particles coming out, the buses produce 90 percent less emissions than they would by running on standard diesel fuel.

Eighteen of the University’s 43 buses currently use particulate traps, and plans for converting the rest are underway. The expense of converting a bus to being compatible with particulate traps is about $12,000, and the fuel itself costs an average of 20 cents more per gallon.

The University is a national leader in the area of environmentally-conscious public transportation, Cunningham said.

“We have the largest fleet of any university for alternative fuel vehicles. And we have the largest such fleet in the state of Michigan,” he added.

The decision to use the new fuel came from five years of research done by a committee for the University’s Department of Transportation composed of professors, health officials and environmentally-concerned citizens, Cunningham said.

“We wanted the most environmentally safe vehicles that would meet our service demands,” he said.

“These buses run cleaner than everything but electric- and fuel cell- powered vehicles,” he said.

The alternative fuel system turned out to be the best fit for the department’s need, but there are still hopes for even cleaner engines to be used, Cunningham said. “We are looking at hybrid electrics and ultimately fuel cells,” he said.

The alternative fuel that the University buses use is a logical step toward safer engines, but the sights of manufacturers all over the country are set on fuel cells, said civil and environmental engineering Prof. Walter Weber. “It’s an attractive intermediate,” he said.

Bio-diesel is a good resource for public transportation, ships and trains, Weber said, but there is little chance of seeing it used in cars.

“There’s no infrastructure present for distribution,” he said.

Before getting on the University bus that just arrived across from the Michigan Union, one student expressed approval of the University’s use of cleaner burning fuel in its public transportation vehicles.

“I am proud,” Engineering sophomore James Split said. “I don’t mind paying the extra expense, as long as it’s within reason.”

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