A group of Jamaicans made an extended trip to Seattle this summer — talking with locals, learning about the region, and even watching the big fireworks show over Lake Union. But their most important destinations were not on any sightseeing map.
Turns out they weren’t as interested in the Space Needle as they were in our biodiesel plants.
The four-person group consisted of engineers, lecturers and students affiliated with Jamaica’s University of Technology. They’re part of a team that has been been working for two years with members of the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Puget Sound Professional chapter to develop a prototype biodiesel reactor in Negril, Jamaica, aiming to give the island nation a new source of sustainable energy.
For the Jamaicans, the goal of the trip was to experience and learn about large-scale biodiesel production, and take those lessons back home, with an eye toward increasing their production and capacity over time.
The prototype reactor in Negril can produce about 600 gallons per month. On their trip, the Jamaican team visited facilities including the Imperium Renewables facility in Grays Harbor, Wash., which can produce up to 100 million gallons a year.
It was invaluable to witness large-scale operations first-hand, rather than reading or hearing about them, said members of the Jamaican team.
Among other things, they were able to see of the recovery and reuse of methanol, a key ingredient in biodiesel production and a scarce resource in Jamaica. In addition to talking with the people who run Seattle-area plants, the Jamaicans were able to get a better feel for critical lab equipment and other tools.
“We could see the technology and how, exactly, we could solve testing issues that we have,” explained Shannen Suckra, a member of the Jamaican team and a graduate of the University of Technology.
Other stops included the General Biodiesel plant in Seattle, and Boeing’s Renton plant, where they learned about the growing importance of biofuels in aviation. Boeing has helped to fund the Engineers Without Borders project, which also involves the University of Washington, Green River Community College and others.
The project is a great example of cross-cultural collaboration. Volunteers, schools and companies from the Seattle region are helping to develop sustainable sources of energy to reduce Jamaica’s reliance on imported fuel — an area where the U.S. still has lots of work to do itself. Members of the Seattle group have made multiple trips to Jamaica to assess the local needs and help engineers their set up and run the operation on their own.
“There is no biodiesel industry in Jamaica right now. They’re the ground floor of introducing the island to a different form of diesel fuel for them to consume,” said EWB member James Burke, a leader of the project and a teacher at Tyee Middle School in Bellevue.
Burke’s work running the Afro-Carribbean Technology Exchange generated a serendipitous series of events that got the Jamaican biodiesel project started, after he made a presentation to the EWB group that sparked a discussion of Jamaica’s needs.
The prototype reactor in Negril has a contract to convert waste vegetable oil from the region’s resorts into biofuel to power fire trucks and other emergency response vehicles — making it all the more important to generate fuel that works.
“As a concept, it works perfectly. We’ve got this waste that we’re going to turn into energy, it’s going to support local industry and it’s also going to support local jobs,” said Shawn Noble, General Biodiesel plant manager. “But with that you need consumer confidence. It’s really easy to make biodiesel. It’s much harder to make quality biodiesel consistently on an industrial scale.”
Later this year, members of the Seattle group plan to return to Jamaica to help the group with issues including methanol recovery. See this EWB-PSP page for more on the project.