SPECIAL REPORT: McNeese students research how to produce oil from local waste

SPECIAL REPORT: McNeese students research how to produce oil from local waste
(Source: KPLC)
(Source: KPLC)
(Source: KPLC)
(Source: KPLC)
(Source: KPLC)
(Source: KPLC)

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - It takes millions of years for the earth to naturally produce oil but research students at McNeese State University believe it's possible to imitate, and expedite, the process in a lab.

A group of undergraduate engineering students conduct an experiment as the professor explains the process.

"Step One: Take some of our Aluminosilicate and that gets loaded into reactors," said Dr. Jacob Borden, assistant professor of chemical engineering.

Step Two requires mixing the clay and water concoction and adding in tiny compounds of extracted waste, commonly found in the Bayou State.

"We put this in and essentially see if we can mature that into something more like oil," Borden said.

Finally, Step Three: Cap the reactor, pop it into a conventional oven and then leave it in there for about a week.

"All we have to do now is monitor the temperature and make sure that it's staying at 150 degrees Celcius, which is about 300-350 degrees Fahrenheit," he said.

This might sound like a classic chemistry experiment, but these students are trying to make one of the world's most valuable natural resources.

"Basically, we are trying to make oil. We're just trying to take what people find as waste and make something useful out of it," said McNeese senior Brett Nicholson.

One unique aspect about their research is they're taking local waste like sugarcane bagasse (leftover residue after juice is extracted) from St. Mary Parish or crawfish and shrimp casings from local restaurants, to see if they're able to produce oil from them.

"The biggest thing that we will gain from this is a better understanding of how oil is made, which means we will be better at extracting it and using it as it comes out of the ground," explained Borden.

With a background in fuels and alternative energy, Borden wanted to find an alternative source for the unstable oil industry.

"If you think about what is happening in the oil industry, fracking and the like, it's essentially going after immature oil and so instead of having oil now we're sort of one step back in the process and that's going to keep happening over time," he said. "We're going to run out of the easy stuff and we're going to have to keep sort of backing up."

So he turned to 13 of his students to begin distinct research that's never been done before.

"The coolest part about this research project is that we're looking at problems that don't have solutions yet," said senior Robert Bertrand. "When we make a discovery or when we figure out something new, for the first few moments, I am the first person to ever have known that."

Over the past five months, this group has been conducting live experiments with different waste products and clays to see if it's possible to mimic the process of oil formation.

"We're starting with the bare bones. We're doing the basic steps of this. We'll move on from there and see if it's really liable to actually create all this," said senior Justin Gary.

After the reactors are ready to be pulled out of the oven, students open them to see what's inside.

Bertrand said this is the most rewarding part.

"We've opened reactors that we thought there were going to be nothing like no reaction, no nothing. We'll open them and the smell coming off of them will smell like methane sometimes," he said.

Next, they test the sample.

"We're starting to see some very interesting results. We can't confirm anything and it's going to be a long time before we're able to say something like oil came out but really it's been in the interest of the students. I think it's an engaging project and that the students are really driving it forward now," said Borden.

Even though they haven't produced crude oil yet, each experiment leads them in the right direction.

No matter how long it takes to reach the ultimate goal, they're confident their efforts will lead to the future of oil production.

"The ultimate goal is that one day you'll have a plant out somewhere. You'll bring it lawn clippings, old leaves, bagasse - that we're dealing with, fruit rinds, trees, sawdust and you'll load it into the plant. Out of the end of the plant, there will be gasoline," Bertrand explained. "That's the dream. It's taking waste products that nobody wants anything to do with and turning them into something usable."

Variations of this research have been conducted by Masters and PhD students across the country but this particular project by undergraduate students, is the first of its kind.

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