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Greasy side of paradise fuels alum's career

By Brianne Wilson

Will Smith

Photo by Brianne Wilson

Will Smith takes old grease and makes it into biodiesel fuel that can be used in standard diesel engines. His work for Pacific Biodiesel Technologies frequently takes him to Hawaii, where greasy fare is as common as sun and surf. The Purdue alumnus earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural engineering in 2003 and a master's degree in 2004. ​Full-size image (473 KB)

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Will Smith may have a dream job, but not for the reasons you may think.

"Most people's reaction when I tell them I work in Hawaii is sarcastic," said Smith, who earned a bachelor's degree from Purdue in agricultural engineering in 2003 and a master's degree in 2004.

"Their general reaction is 'Oh well, that must be awful!' What is hard to explain is that I get to spend all of my time in the hidden underbelly of paradise like the municipal landfills, sewage treatment plants, rendering plants and industrial parks."

Smith is the engineering manager at Pacific Biodiesel Technologies in Hawaii. His job is to take natural oils — mostly spent cooking oils — and turn them into diesel fuel that can be used in any standard diesel engine. Getting that spent oil and transforming it into fuel is not what many people expect when they hear Smith works in Hawaii. But this is exactly what brings Smith to what he calls "the armpit" of the islands.

Despite the tropical location, the raw materials for the biodiesel Smith helps to make are not very exotic. In fact, they could be as close as your favorite local restaurant's fryer or even your home kitchen. It turns out that old grease can make great fuel, and that's how Smith wound up working in Hawaii.

"Many people go to Hawaii not only for its natural beauty, but also because of its unique food," said Smith. "What I mean is that Hawaii is known for having foods that may not be the most healthy for you, and a lot of it is fried, sort of like on a cruise ship. Many people throw their diets out and indulge themselves."

Although reality may have altered Smith's view of paradise, his work still fuels his imagination.

"I am motivated by the opportunity to be part of a solution," Smith said. "I enjoy being directly involved in helping to recycle millions of gallons of former waste into valuable products that people use every day."

His interest in making biodiesel began when Smith was a student at Purdue working on an engineering research team.

"Our professor challenged us to determine whether different vegetable oil-based fuels could provide the same power as regular diesel," said Smith. "It sounded like an interesting challenge and brought together a lot of interesting topics, so we went for it."

Go with it he did. Smith and his team modified a John Deere tractor to run on plain vegetable oil. The tractor also ran on biodiesel, which didn't require modification. The team had a hard time finding a pure, reliable source of biodiesel, so Smith designed and built a way to make biodiesel. After the project ended, Smith was still interested in creating biodiesel, particularly from materials most people consider waste.

"While studying I never thought that this project would actually lead me to a job or a career," Smith said. "But as it turns out, it has been so much more than a career."

In a way, it's probably fitting that Smith found a career in high-tech recycling. He said that he learned when he was young to be thrifty and not waste anything. He said he learned to find hidden uses for the things people threw away.

"My parents impressed upon me at an early age that waste was a very bad thing," Smith said. "Growing up on a small farm I learned that you had to get every last bit out of everything. Waste was not acceptable. We re-used everything we could think of, and I guess I just carried that thinking on into my school work and career."

But the lesson isn't just about thrift. Smith still sees himself as contributing to a better world.

"It's a process where I know we can make a difference," said Smith "I know that we won't ever be able to replace all of our diesel with biodiesel, but it is a great start and can make a real difference in bringing biofuels to the mainstream."​