University students are collaborating to develop an inexpensive and easy-to-use waste vegetable oil filtration system for two recycling cooperatives in Sao Paulo. The filtered waste vegetable oil can be sold at a higher price to biodiesel companies, or run in “grease cars” – diesel vehicles converted to run on waste vegetable oil.
MIT and ITA (Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica) students visiting the oil filtration system at COOPSV, a Sao Paulo recycling cooperative.
Our Green Grease team (Angela Hojnacki, Tendelle Sheu, and Alex Fallon) is currently in Brazil working with waste picker cooperatives and Brazilian universities on developing and disseminating waste vegetable oil filtration systems to increase the revenue of the wastepickers (or catadores in Portuguese).
We just had a fantastic weekend in Sao Jose dos Campos with students from Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (ITA), one of the top engineering schools in the country. At ITA, we were hosted by POLENS, the school’s student group focused on social entrepreneurship, represented by students Caio Braz and Isadora Kimura. POLENS arranged a terrific visit for us that included a discussion with school leaders to discuss the growing interest in entrepreneurship, a tour of CCM to learn about the latest research, and an informal discussion with ITA students about life at MIT. Students from ITA also came with us on a visit to Cooperativa de Reciclagem de Materiais São Vicente, a local cooperative with a sophisticated oil collection and filtration system.
The highlight of the weekend, however, was working together with engineering students from ITA and the engineering school at the University of Sao Paulo. Based on an initial design by MIT student Angela Hojnacki, MIT, USP, and ITA students worked together to adapt the design to use local materials and ensure that the system remained low-cost and easy to build and operate. After two full days of construction, discussion, and redesign we ended up with an elegantly simple structure to filter waste vegetable oil that costs less than 150 reais ($92). Thanks to our new friends at ITA and USP and their help and hardwork, the prototype lives up to Green Grease’s goal to develop a filtration system that can easily be incorporated into waster picker cooperatives without burdensome technical challenges or costs.
With the bustling biodiesel sector in Brazil there is strong market for waste vegetable oil that can be processed into biodiesel. Unfiltered vegetable oil can be sold for between 50 to 70 centavos (31 to 43 cents) per liter whereas filtered oil fetches a price of 1 to 1.25 reais (62 to 77 cents). For a cooperative that collects 50 liters of vegetable oil per week and sells the filtered oil for 30 centavos (19 cents) in incremental revenue per liter, the system has the potential to pay for itself in 2.5 months. This is a pretty reasonable timeline, from our perspective, and the more oil the cooperative is able to collect and filter, the shorter the payback period becomes!
Now that we have a working prototype, we’re excited to work with cooperatives in Sao Paulo to understand any additional costs that they might incur by operating a filtration system to fully understand the financial impact selling filtered oil would have for them. If all goes well, we hope to work with a local cooperative to build and install a Green Grease filtration system by the end of this week. We’re also excited to keep collaborating with ITA and USP as we work with cooperatives to introduce this new technology.
Post by Alex Fallon, an MBA student at the MIT Sloan School of Management.