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Parnas Named an Environmental Leader

Richard Parnas, associate professor and director of the Chemical Engineering program, and member of the Polymer Program in the Institute of Materials Science, was presented the 2006-07 faculty Environmental Leadership Award. Dr. Parnas, who received several nominations, including a departmental nomination, was selected in recognition for his efforts to not only reduce the CO2 footprint of the University but also to position UConn in the forefront of sustainable energy development. Dr. Parnas directs the University’s Biofuel Consortium.

The Consortium comprises students and professors associated with the departments and programs of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Plant Science, Marine Science, Natural Resources, Economics, and Business who share a common interest in stimulating a biofuels industry within Connecticut, thus reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels and associated environmental and health impacts. Dr. Parnas’s nomination highlighted the contributions of the Biofuel Consortium toward reshaping the environmental identity of the University, development of environmental curriculum and laboratory experiences for graduate and undergraduate students, and novel research targeting improved biofuel feedstocks and processing methodologies.

The Environmental Leadership Awards are presented by the University’s Environmental Policy Advisory Council (EPAC) as a way to acknowledge individuals who continuously strive to lead environmentally responsible lives at the University of Connecticut and who, through their positive example, have inspired others to follow suit.  The University established a formal Office of Environmental Policy in 2002; environmental and land-use attorney Richard Miller directs the operation.

The Biofuel Consortium emerged from the research efforts of Dr. Joseph Helble, former Head and professor of Chemical Engineering, who – working with two students in 2004 – transformed waste cooking oil collected from campus dining halls into biodiesel. The team was able to collect enough waste vegetable oil to produce six gallons of pure biodiesel (B100) throughout the fall semester of 2004. Using a blend of 20% pure biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel, the team staged a demonstration of the so-called B-20 fuel in a University shuttle bus. Dr. Helble won the first faculty Environmental Leadership Award in 2005; following Dr. Helble’s departure to accept the role of Dean at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, the program succeeded to Dr. Parnas, who dramatically expanded upon the original demonstration project and leveraged its influence throughout the state.

“Richard has done an impressive job in moving biofuels at UConn farther than many of us thought possible when this began as a small laboratory feasibility study,” said Dr. Helble. “His ability to develop the processing technology, secure funding, build coalitions across campus and with state leaders, and establish UConn as the focal point for Connecticut efforts to develop a biofuels industry is remarkable. It is his efforts that are largely responsible for UConn becoming a leader in this field.”

The University produces an estimated 1,770 lbs. weekly of waste vegetable oil in its dining halls and restaurants. Dennis Pierce, Director of Dining Services, said the University uses soybean trans fat-free frying oil, canola oil, olive oil blends, and extra virgin olive oil. Originally, Dr. Parnas’s goal was to expand the University’s use of biodiesel in its fleet vehicles. By fall ’06, the Consortium team was producing and supplying the University with approximately 50 gallons of biodiesel weekly. The Biofuel Consortium uses waste oils collected only from the on-campus restaurant Chuck & Augie’s, and from the food court, both located in the Student Union. The University pays for the pickup and disposal of the remaining waste oil by New England Rendering, said Mr. Pierce. The Consortium projects that if all campus buses ran on B-20 in the future, CO2 emissions could be reduced by 15%.

Consortium members hope to scale up production capacity to 500 gallons weekly using Dr. Parnas’s novel reactor design, for which he has filed a patent application. An important aspect of the biofuel initiative involves the educational component. Dr. Parnas has pledged to donate the 50 gallon/week biodiesel facility to his department so that senior chemical engineering students may gain hands-on exposure to biofuel processing.

In a bid to bring major regional attention to the University’s energy leadership, in January 2007 the consortium organized and hosted a Biofuels Symposium that brought to Storrs over 200 researchers, state and national legislators, energy innovators, economists, farmers and corporate officials for a day devoted to revealing and discussing the technical, environmental, policy and economic challenges and promise of biofuels; funding opportunities and legislation; policy issues; and local, regional and international impacts. This symposium, and an earlier biofuels workshop, brought widespread media exposure to Dr. Parnas and the biofuels arena, including radio interviews with NPR and WILI, televised coverage of the symposium (CTN), and publication of an opinion piece in the Hartford Courant (January 21, 2007).

Dr. Parnas also has forged a partnership with the Center for Continuing Education at UConn to develop a new Certificate Program in Biofuels for business executives, town managers and other decision makers. In addition, he has collaborated on several multi-disciplinary energy proposals, which are pending, intended to secure millions of dollars in funding from federal and state agencies to establish an Alternative Energy Center at the University of Connecticut.