Biofuels Bring Together NYC Students from Three Universities for a Diesel Engine Test


Biofuels Bring Together NYC Students from Three Universities for a Diesel Engine Test

By Martin Nolan

Global warming, despite its divisive politics, grass roots efforts to help in the fight are bringing together people from around the world.

Matt Basinger, PhD candidate at Columbia University, working with the Uganda NGO Pilgrim (, is leading the way with the BELT project. BELT, for Biofuel Engine Longevity Test, has brought together three NYC universities to examine the long-term effects of running a diesel engine on biofuels. Each university, Columbia University, Manhattan College and The City College of New York (CCNY) are all researching a Lister diesel engine running for 500 hours on vegetable oil. Of course, they are university students, so not just any veggie oil will do; they’ve got to go for the worst – the school cafeteria.

Edward (red), Francis (blue) and Matt (Columbia)

“The whole project has been incredible and so diverse.” Said Basinger, who has made several trips to Uganda, where an engine is in place at Pilgrim’s campus; it serves as an educational tool to the students and is intended as a back up generator to provide lighting during brown outs. Basinger added, “The power sometimes goes out multiple times a week and occasionally for long periods, like 7 or 8 days. The kids have to study for their exams by candlelight.” The vision is to also connect the engine to other devices in a multifunctional rural fuel platform ( By changing the connection of the drive belt, the engine could mill grain, pump water, crush seeds as well as generate power. In Uganda, the hardy Jatropha plant, which needs very little rain fall, produces seeds that can be crushed to obtain oil to fuel the engine. Much of the system is then self-sustaining.

“We’re not up and running in Uganda as it’s tough to get parts because what you order may not be what you receive.” Basinger, like any engineer, knows applied engineering is never like the textbooks.

At the same time that is the attraction to students. Amir Nosrat of The City College of New York (Sr, ME) said, “Getting your hands dirty is what it is all about. And there are certainly things at the ground level that you just don’t expect; often things don’t work like they’re supposed to.” Yesid Agualimpia (Sr, ME at CCNY) adds, “And that’s the challenge, that is why we’re here to gain that experience as well as have fun with a diesel engine.”

The BELT project

Confined by space limitations at Columbia, Basinger and his PhD adviser, Dr. Vijay Modi, proposed to open the research component to other engineering schools to buy an engine, run their own test, and share the data.

At the introductory meeting in April 2007, Manhattan College was strongly represented with about 15 students; CCNY had only one but little by little has picked up steam, then got a critical mass of people, then space allocation and the engine arrived in December 2007. Manhattan jumped right in, the engine was quickly ordered and the students had started getting dirty with it by summer 2007.

All three universities purchased a Lister CS 6/1 diesel engine whose design is from the 1930s, updated in the 1960s and continues to be a popular engine in Africa and India (and even Alaska). With no electrical system and a crank start, it is rated for 6 HP (4.5 kW) at 650 rpm.

They are not only built for developing countries, they are built in developing countries; so, about 50 hours go into cleaning the engine and bring the machine to operating conditions. Next, the engine is fastened to its frame and the concrete; all three labs have encountered troubles with vibrations. Columbia’s issue was certainly the worst. Basinger explains, “We got a great room, set up for the exhaust, but it is located immediately below an optics lab. Their equipment shakes terribly when the engine is running. Without spending a lot of money, the two labs can’t run tests at the same time.”

Meanwhile, students start designing the preheat system and get set up to take real-time data points. About 60 parameters are used, most are measured through 20 different sensors: fuel temperature, cooling water temperature, emissions gases and particulates, component wear just to name a few.

Steve Bosco and Alex Franck (Manhattan College) cutting steel stock

Naturally, a break in test on petroleum diesel is run first for about 50 hours. Many of the pieces are makeshift – all part of the fun. The fuel tank is a few tubes and barrel full of filtered veggie oil; the cooling system is a bit more sophisticated with its feedback loop of water but the same “primitive” components. As a result, making sure the pre-heater, cooling system, fuel line, and all the sensors are operating is a feat in itself. Then the switch is made to biofuels with startup and an occasional cleaning of the system by running it on biodiesel. First a trial run of 50-100 hours to make the transition, and the team makes the big push forward to 500 hours. The first data sets on 500 hours are expected at the end of the summer 2008.


Pilgrim Uganda ( is a Christian Ugandan not for profit organization that serves the people of eastern and northern Uganda. Born out of a response to the horrendous conditions observed by the founder Calvin Echodu in the internally displaced persons refugee (IDP) camps, Pilgrim provides medical and educational programs, emergency food, and resettlement & agricultural assistance to re-establish people in communities so as to be self-sustaining.

Pilgrim’s Beacon School opened its doors to 250 students in 2006 and is now home to 470 students from age 12-21, most are orphans and many former child soldiers. At the same time, trauma treatment is provided to students and adults who have suffered from the long drawn out war.

Developing Students into Engineers

What is being done in Uganda provides inspiration for the work done in NYC. The benefits can also touch home, as applying the theory to a hands-on project is the challenge students crave; at times formidable, Stephen Bosco (Jr, ME at Manhattan College) emphasizes that it takes “committed professional grade engineers.”

Amir Danesh (Sr, ME at CCNY) showed his commitment by fishing out the gears and nuts from a lubrication tank. The oil level reached up to his bicep; “I spent three hours in the bath trying to wash the oil off, which turned green when it came into contact with water and truly stunk!”

Amir Danesh (CCNY) getting dirty

Others have enjoyed branching out like Sergio Rodriguez, an electrical engineer with ConEd doing his Master Degree at Manhattan College, who feels although diesel engines and power generation are traditionally for mechanical engineers “the goals are smart, achievable, and the multidimensional implications of positive results can really have an immediate impact on small communities throughout Africa, India, and the environment.”

Rodriguez adds that his level of commitment at times has had him in the lab until the wee hours of the night, although that was because he got locked in.

While some engineering students like Bosco have long had the need for speed with engines and motor sports, the project put new light on the energy field. For Rodriquez and Thomas Reding (also at ConEd and pursuing an MS in ME at Manhattan College), both with lots of experience in energy, are excited about diesel engines and the broader scope of alternative fuels and energy sources.

Among all the students from all the schools there is a clear resonating theme, while it is all fun and great engineering, thoughts turn to Uganda, and as Redding said, “It is a unique opportunity to make a difference as an engineer to sustainably increase a people’s quality of life.”

 Posted by at 2:25 pm