Victoria Gao / Sun File Photo

An engineering project team has modified a tractor for the Cornell Agriculture Services with the hopes to make it less harmful to the environment.

May 1, 2020

Sustainability Project Team Aims to Keep Cornell Clean

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Correction appended.

After two years, a student-led project team is moving forward with funding approved by Cornell to help the University meet its ambitious carbon neutrality goals.

After receiving the green light in fall 2019, Engineers for a Sustainable World: Biofuels finally began work on a project that enabled one of Cornell Agriculture Services’ John Deere tractors to run on both diesel and biodiesel.

In setting an example for how campus vehicles could run in a more environmentally friendly way, the team hopes that its project will make Cornell’s target of becoming fully carbon neutral by 2035 a reality.

“Our project team is focused on the community, both Cornell and the larger Ithaca one,” said team lead, Gregory Brumberg ’21. “As a result, many of our projects are geared towards helping Cornell reach its sustainability goals.”

Brumberg, who became the team lead last fall semester, saw the project team as an opportunity for students to simultaneously practice environmentalism while improving their engineering skills.

“We received funding for this project two years ago,” Brumberg said. “However, it took two years of negotiating and correspondence with the University, Cornell University Environment, Health and Safety, and Cornell Grounds before we could finally bring this project to a phase where we could start the initial engineering design work.”

The team’s modified tractor contains two tanks, one each for diesel and biodiesel. Although biodiesels, which are produced from organic oils, burn and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, they also suck carbon dioxide out of the air when they grow, which means it could ultimately be a cleaner source of fuel.

The tractor starts by running on diesel, but the team was able to add parts to the vehicle that allow it to switch to biodiesel.

“As the engine gets hot enough, the radiator fluid is circulated around to the biodiesel tank that’s also on the vehicle,” Brumberg said. “The excess heat from the engine is circulated around into the biodiesel tank to warm it up so that it’s viscous enough for flowing.”

This is an important step for cold Ithaca winters, otherwise, the engine will not run.

After the biodiesel warms up, it can be pumped into the engine, so that for the rest of the time the tractor is being used, it runs on biofuel. The combustion of biodiesel creates additional heat that recirculates again to keep the biodiesel warm while in the tank.

Before shutting off the engine, the tractor will convert back to diesel to clean out any residue that the biofuel may have left in the engine.

The members of the project team collaborated with Pittsburgh-based Optimus Technologies to add modifications that come from the company’s Vector System, which their website describes as “a rugged, cost-effective, EPA-compliant biodiesel conversion system for medium and heavy-duty diesel vehicles.”

Brumberg’s team is also measuring the emissions that come out of the tractor’s tailpipe with a device called the Portable Emissions Monitoring System.

The device will allow the team to compare which of the emissions — biodiesel or diesel — is cleaner for the environment. Depending on their results in the winter, they will be able to conclude whether to advocate for the conversion of more vehicles, not only tractors, to the Vector System.

However, if it becomes the case that biodiesel is dirtier than diesel, the team will decide not to follow through with their goal to convert other vehicles.

“Even though it might have technologically worked because it might have the potential of negative environmental impact, we won’t advocate for more conversion until we confirm that it has a positive impact,” Brumberg said.

The team’s modification parts were installed between March 5 and March 8, which was also the day of the tractor’s first successful run on biodiesel.

While members of the team are staying separate due to COVID-19, they continue to conduct literature reviews while using the GREET model, an “analytical tool that simulates the energy use and emissions output of various vehicle and fuel combinations,” produced by the Argonne National Laboratory.

“We’re trying to look at [our project] holistically to see which is a better fuel source for our campus,” Brumberg said. If the team members prove that their tractor works in the winter and that biodiesel is a cleaner fuel source than diesel, they will support the conversion of other vehicles to the Vector System that they used for their tractor.

Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately attributed Gregory Brumberg ’21 as the person who created the project team.