Graduate students often work on various research projects at their colleges and university, but how often do they spearhead renewable energy development for the facilities? Michelle Rodio, a graduate student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University from Hammonton has helped the school develop a new biodiesel system on campus. The system recycles waste oil from the university’s kitchens into biodiesel that will be used to fuel tractors and other landscaping equipment at the university.

Rodio’s undergraduate background is in aerospace engineering, but she became interested in renewable energy projects while taking a Clean Energy Systems course during graduate school. “I watched The Colony on Discovery Channel and it was a show where a bunch of strangers were set up in an abandoned ‘post apocalyptic’ area and had to learn to survive. One of the things they did was use pig fat they found to create a fuel to power their tractor. I thought it was the coolest thing. So, when we were assigned our first project in the Clean Energy Systems class, I began researching how to make biofuel” said Rodio.

Rodio started developing the project as an assignment in the class and then took it a step further by working out the economics of the project and pitching it to the university administration. Her team was given $10,000 in funding by the university to create the system. Once fully implemented the project will pay for itself in 2 years by creating fuel for only $1.35 per gallon, a savings of almost $3 per gallon.  In addition to saving the school money the use of biodiesel reduces emissions compared to typical diesel fuel, and is also a sustainable model, reusing the existing waste oils rather than disposing of them.

Rodio’s biodiesel project will also contribute to the University’s EcoCAR2 team. The EcoCAR2 competition was established by General Motors and the U.S. Department of Energy to engage universities and student by engineering alternative fuel vehicles. Embry-Riddle’s team has engineered a Chevy Malibu (the stock vehicle for all EcoCAR teams) to be a plug-in electric vehicle hybrid. The car has an electric drive train system which is powered by lithium-ion batteries. On a full charge the vehicle can go 30 miles, at which point an onboard generator will create additional electricity. The generator runs on biodiesel. Rodio is the lead biofuel production engineer for the team.

Rodio has an extensive resume in addition to her work on the biodiesel project; while completing her undergraduate degree in Aerospace Engineering she interned with Lockheed Martin doing air traffic control engineering at the FAA Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township, manufacturing engineering for Department of Defense missile contracts, and mechanical engineering on the Space Shuttle and Ares IX test fight vehicle programs for the United Space Alliance. She will graduate this May with a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and has also earned pilot certification.

Her curiosity in the field came at an early age “One of the reasons why I chose to study aerospace engineering is because I went to Space Camp in 5th grade… my interest for flight came in when my dad started to take me flying in his airplane when I was 16.”

“I am still unsure as to what I plan to do upon graduating...  There are so many options and different career paths that I would love to go down; astronaut, robotics, mathematics… so I am really taking my time this semester to narrow in on what I would like to do.  Getting my PhD is something that I am very much considering as well.  I discovered a passion for teaching during graduate school, while on a graduate teaching assistantship.”