Steamboat Springs High School junior Lorin Paley unrolls the plans for her senior project, which is to convert cooking oil into a sustainable biodiesel. Her shop teacher, Johnny Walker, is supervising the project.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Steamboat Springs High School junior Lorin Paley unrolls the plans for her senior project, which is to convert cooking oil into a sustainable biodiesel. Her shop teacher, Johnny Walker, is supervising the project.

Paley working on fuel project

Steamboat Springs junior builds reactor to produce her own sustainable biodiesel

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Paley poses with some of the materials she will use to build a biodiesel reactor. In an effort to be eco-friendly, Paley has salvaged many of the parts from Home ReSource at the Milner Landfill.

— When gas prices skyrocketed in recent weeks, most people complained. Lorin Paley got to work.

The Steamboat Springs High School junior is preparing a rig to turn cooking oil into cheap, ecologically sound biodiesel as her senior project. So far, Paley has spent 25 hours collecting pieces for her reactor, which she is building in an unused welding room at the high school under the guidance of retired Steamboat Springs Middle School shop teacher Johnny Walker.

"It's a lot to learn," Paley said. "I'm just going to learn the welding this year."

But the project is much more than welding. It includes complex chemical reactions dealing with noxious and explosive gases, as well as the proper disposal of the waste products.

Paley said there are several ways to create biodiesel from cooking oil, but to make her method the most efficient possible, she combined several other processes she learned about online and in books.

The idea for the project came when a family friend, who drives horses between Colorado and California, found that diesel fuel was her biggest cost.

"It seems like a universal problem, and if you can reduce the cost, it would solve a lot of problems," she said. "It seems such a waste just to put (cooking oil) into the landfills."

In an effort to be eco-friendly, Paley also has salvaged many of the parts for her reactor, including heating elements from water heaters, pumps from old machines and containers from HomeReSource at the Milner Landfill.

The used cooking oil will be donated from the L'Apogee restaurant - the higher quality the cooking oil, the higher quality the biodiesel.

The major byproduct, glycerin, will be given to Little Moon Essentials and perhaps made into lip balms and lotions.

"We're hoping it will work," said Laura Lamun, owner of Little Moon Essentials.

Lamun typically buys about a gallon of plant-oil glycerin, which retails for $90, every two months. She said she would like to be able to use Paley's glycerin if the process leaves it with a good smell.

"One thing we've got to make sure is that it doesn't smell like french fries," she said.

Paley said she expects the glycerin to be 95 percent pure, with additional filters available.

Two-year project

When Paley walked into Walker's shop class five years ago, she "didn't fit my profile of my normal shop junkie," the teacher said.

Once she started working, however, she became very involved in all of her projects.

"She is a project girl," said her dad, Bill Paley. "Whenever she's got free time, she's got a project."

Walker remembered the time Lorin Paley decided she wanted to become a hunter.

"She got her hunting license and was determined to shoot an elk. She went out, shot an elk, gutted it and cleaned it and did the skin all by herself," he said. "That's the way she operates."

Paley came up with the fuel project on her own, as well, Bill Paley said.

"It's not like we said, 'This is something you should do, and this is how to do it,'" he said. "I don't have a clue."

So, when Lorin Paley was looking for a mentor for her senior project, Walker agreed, though he never had worked on a reactor like this before.

"I don't know how to make it, but most of the stuff I've done over the years I didn't know how to make, either," he said. "I'm learning."

Paley came up with the chemical reactions and equipment that were needed, and Walker said he helps tie the pieces together.

"She's pretty much the brains behind it. I'm just helping with the mechanics," he said.

For safety support, Paley has contacted Tim Palmer at The Industrial Company to advise her on the gases and gear. Walker and Paley will construct a hood that ventilates the working area. By using an abandoned shop, they are clear of any sparks or debris.

"We've got the gloves, the apron," Paley said.

Although she is completing the reactor for a senior project, Paley began a year early so that next year she can look at the viability of biodiesel's use. She said she would like to study the city's use of diesel to determine whether biodiesel would be a viable option. Diesel engines do not have to be converted to use biodiesel.

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