It’s Engineering Expo day at Oregon State, which means Kelley Engineering Center is teeming with hundreds of students, all eager to showcase their projects, research and ideas. One of them is Mikkel VandeBergh, a senior majoring in environmental engineering, whose mission at the expo – and beyond – is to talk about biodiesel.
The beauty of VandeBergh’s exhibit is how comprehensive it is. Not only can she talk about the benefits of biodiesel as an alternative energy source, a topic about which she is passionate, she can show you how to it’s made. The “biodiesel cart” she is demonstrating is a portable, mini-fuel synthesizer that can catalyze waste vegetable oil into something you can use to power a diesel engine.
It’s simple enough (it requires only a few ingredients) to demystify the process of making fuel, and gives VandeBergh a platform to talk about the environment at events like the Oregon Stater Awards and DaVinci Days, as well as the Engineering Expo.
“The mission of the cart is to spread awareness of biodiesel and how it’s made to everybody. It is a renewable fuel with limited emissions that can be used today,” says Vandebergh.
The cart is operated by the Biodiesel Outreach Project, which is housed within OSU’s Sustainable Energy Initiative, of which VandeBergh is vice president. Its focus is on outreach to the public as well as K-12 students.
When she makes biodiesel for people, VandeBergh tells them how quickly a new crop of biofuels can be grown and processed – one year – compared to the millions it takes to create fossil fuels. She also tells them that biodiesel has low emissions of toxic constituents, and, since it’s made from plants, is renewable.
Another notable benefit, VandeBergh says, is that most current diesel engines can work on biodiesel, and it’s possible to reuse waste frying oil from restaurants to process it.
Still, biodiesel isn’t perfect – it can damage rubber fuel lines and freezes at higher temperatures compared to typical fossil fuels, which makes it necessary to use synthetic hoses and to install fuel tank heaters for freezing conditions. Critics also say that biodiesel crop growth can interfere with food crops at the environment’s expense.
“There can be problems with land being cleared for oil crops, but this is a problem not just for oil but for food crops, cattle and more,” says VandeBergh. “Biodiesel is not the only solution, but part of the solution.”
A trajectory toward leadership
Although she’s always been invested in environmental issues, VandeBergh would never have been so vocal about it just a few years ago. “I was really shy as a freshman,” she says. “I was just going to class, doing my homework – that was it.”
A stint working for the 2008 Obama campaign during her sophomore year helped VandeBergh break out of her shell. “We had to talk to strangers. We had to knock on doors. We had to call people, and I had no clue who they were,” says VandeBergh.
VandeBergh also cites professors Skip Rochefort and David Hackleman as being important mentors. “Dr. Rochefort got me started on doing the classroom outreach and finds outreach opportunities for us to do,” VandeBergh says. “Dr. Hackleman does this too, but also acts as a source of information and lets us bounce ideas off him for our research and outreach.”
Today, VandeBergh is also the president of the OSU College Democrats and one of four national co-chairs on the Next Generation Scientists for Biodiesel, a group dedicated to biodiesel as an alternative source of energy.
In the future, she wants to use her experience in politics in combination with her dedication to the environment to make a difference.
She’s already on her way. VandeBergh recently got an internship with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, where she will work with policy process in Washington, D.C. “After I get some experience and background in what needs to be fixed, I want to go into environmental policy to fix the things that I see,” she says.