Villanova Students Develop a 'Greener' Soap

Using glycerol from a used cooking oil-to-biodiesel fuel conversion, engineering students developed a soap that is used to clean campus lab equipment and wash hands.

Villanova University engineering students have been converting used cooking oil from dining services into biodiesel fuel for grounds equipment for several years now. This year, the students wanted to take it one step further. What could be done with the leftover glycerin from the oil-to-fuel conversion? After extensive research, the students hit upon a clever solution: sustainable soap.

“Instead of disposing of the glycerol after it has been separated from the dirty biodiesel, we extend its product lifespan by using it to make something that everyone needs,” said Adam Hoffman, the Villanova graduate student who leads the project.

The College of Engineering uses the soap to clean lab equipment, as hand soap in bathrooms, and as a popular giveaway at conferences and student candidate visits. They are currently investigating the possibility of increasing production for distribution outside the university.

“We must train our students to think about the big picture and think of ways of reducing our energy usage, raw material consumption, and energy demands,” said Randy Weinstein, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and director of the College of Engineering’s master of science degree program in sustainable engineering.

Scented with fragrance oils, the soap is considered a cosmetic rather than a detergent by FDA standards because of its glycerol base. It lathers, suds, cleans, and leaves hands feeling silky smooth, while making a positive contribution toward campus sustainability.

The entire process can take up to several weeks, from cooking oil to a bar of solid soap. Part of this semester’s research involves a team of graduate and undergraduate students looking into ways to speed up the final curing stages.

The soap project has become so popular that it is being considered for development into a student work-study program or student club so more students can participate.
In keeping with the university’s Augustinian tradition — which emphasizes service to, and care for, one’s community — sustainability has found its way into all aspects of the curriculum, as well as other diverse campus initiatives. These include

  • the geothermal cooling and water regulation systems placed in Fedigan Hall, an 80-year old residence hall renovated several years ago and turned into the University’s first “Green Dorm;”
  • the elimination of trays in the dining halls;
  • a compost program for Dining Services to reduce waste; and
  • compostable potato-ware cutlery used on campus.

In 2007, University President, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., Ph.D. signed the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, the goal of which is to make Villanova a climate-neutral campus.

Source: Villanova University