job working on a farm. “I was taking a class
in tractors, tillers and lawnmowers, and I had a
busted truck. The teacher convinced me to go
to auto mechanics school.” A Perkins Grant
for women who want to go into nontraditional careers supported her for a two-year
degree, bought her a set of tools and got her
a job at a dealership.
With her head in engines and her heart in
agriculture, Burton — nicknamed the
“Wrench Wench” — teamed up with a group
of people interested in converting used cooking
oil into renewable fuel for diesel vehicles. They
formed Piedmont Biofuels and began producing biodiesel. The raw material for the production process is fat or oil, readily available in the
used grease dumped by restaurants as yellow
grease, used cooking oil or brown grease, the
muck captured in a grease trap. Using existing
biodiesel production technology to convert
these greases produces a soapy waste stream.
Burton was awarded a U.S. Department of Energy
research grant to try to solve the soapy waste problem.
She had a hunch she could do that by using enzymes
instead of chemicals in the production process, but
enzymes are much more expensive. The solution came
when Burton connected with Novozymes, a Danish
enzyme manufacturer with a facility in Franklinton.
Biodiesel is made through a
chemical process called transesterifi-cation, whereby the glycerin is separated from the fat or vegetable oil.
The process leaves behind two
products — methyl esters (the
chemical name for biodiesel) and
glycerin (a valuable by-product
usually sold to be used in soaps and
Burton’s research makes it feasible
to use even the toughest leftover
grease to make biofuel.
COURTESY RACHEL BURTON ’ 96
Joining forces, Burton and her team got a chance to test
their ideas and developed a process that allows the reuse
of enzymes in producing multiple batches of biodiesel.
— Susan Simone
ONLINE: To learn more about biodiesel, take a virtual tour
at the Piedmont Biofuels website: www.biofuels.coop/about/
the-plant/virtual-tour. For biodiesel sources near you, check out
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