Caroline Murphy

Alumna Looks to a Future Where Converted Waste Can Power a College Campus

Project shows green energy could replace some fossil fuels on campus
June 16, 2020

Caroline Murphy '20, who has been working on green energy research since her sophomore year, showed that universities could one day drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption by turning food and green waste generated on campus into biofuels.

Murphy, who was a chemical engineering major, focused her Major Qualifying Project (MQP) on research she had been involved in since her sophomore year at WPI—creating green energy out of waste. She showed that the technology has the potential to one day help schools drastically reduce their fossil fuel consumption.

Most colleges and universities see a remarkable amount of yard and food waste on campus; the MQP looked at that as an inherent opportunity for them to use renewable energy systems, such as bio-oil. 

Murphy has been working with Michael Timko, associate professor of chemical engineering, on his research to develop a more efficient and inexpensive way to convert waste—like unused food, and leaves and twigs—into environmentally friendly biofuels. Timko’s process could help lower our reliance on fossil fuels, cut the amount of municipal waste going into landfills, and reduce water pollution and emissions from petroleum products and landfills. He envisions energy-producing companies one day using his processes to turn food and green waste from towns, grocery stores, schools, and other organizations into energy.

Basing her project on Timko’s research, she focused on mixing commonly found food waste from dining halls with green waste, including grass clippings, leaves, small twigs, and mulch. Using hydrothermal liquefaction, a process that uses moderate heat and high pressure to convert wet biomass into crude-like oil, the mixture can be turned into biofuel, which could replace or reduce the purchase of fossil fuels. Her project also was focused on determining which combination of food and green wastes from a campus produced the most biofuels. 

When to do a Co-op

Co-op is recommended for undergraduate students in the spring of their sophomore year or in the junior year around IQP. If a first year student or senior is interested in doing Co-op they need to work with their faculty advisor and the Office of Academic Advising to determine if a Co-op is a feasible option. Seniors must have undergraduate classes to take upon returning from their Co-op. A Co-op during senior year is very complex; therefore, it is important to meet early, plan and gain your advisor’s support and approval. Students who participate in a BS/MS program and are in the MS portion are ineligible to participate in Co-op as this is an undergraduate program. Students who begin at WPI with college level credit, reach sophomore standing early in their first year, want significant work experience, or wish to earn extra money to support overseas IQP opportunities or other educational experiences should consider a Co-op. 

Start Expanded

Murphy, who grew up in Ludlow, Mass., began working in Timko’s lab three years ago. So when it came time to pick a project topic, focusing on biofuel research was a natural choice. She conducted the MQP, which generally is a team effort, on her own. 

Timko notes that her work advances his own research.

“It opened my eyes in terms of what this might be like at a place like WPI, which has a food waste and yard waste stream,” he says. “We already do useful things with our food waste—like donating it to food banks and a pig farm—but this explores what more we could do. This is really encouraging because it shows that universities, or any organization with a cafeteria and an outdoor campus, could use our technology to create their own clean energy.”

Murphy talks about what inspired her, why she’s interested in green energy, and what her research project could mean to schools like WPI, along with businesses and government organizations.

Q: What inspired you to work on green energy research?

A: Growing up, I was always the one rinsing out the pasta sauce container before putting it in the recycling bin. I tried to learn more about recycling and then bring the information back to my family. I brought my own cup whenever I went to meet friends for coffee. Once I got to WPI, a lot of kids were like me and I didn’t feel weird any more.

Q: Did you find other inspiration while you were studying at WPI?

A: I’ve always been into looking for more green ways to live in general, but once I got to WPI and started taking the core chemical engineering classes and learning how chemical engineers could help with sustainable energy, my interest really grew. Ever since I started working in Professor Timko’s lab, my interest just kept growing.

Q: Why did you want to work in his lab?

A: I really like the idea of taking waste, which is causing pollution and environmental problems, and turning it into something that can help us, especially with climate change going on. This research could lead to more viable biofuels. I like the idea of taking waste and converting it in a creative way.

Q: What does your project say about the future of using green energy on college campuses?

A: I think this shows that it really has potential. Universities could someday use Professor Timko’s technology to turn food waste and yard waste into usable fuel. More research would be needed to determine how and where on campus to incorporate the facilities needed to convert the food and green waste into biofuel, how you’d power it, and who would run it. But with a population like the one at WPI, with a student body passionate about sustainability, this could be implemented and really help the campus. I think the future for green energy on campus is kind of bright at the moment.

Q: Was your MQP a look at what you hope could be part of the school’s future?

A: This isn’t saying, “Aww, man, we’re wasting an opportunity here.” Not at all. WPI does a good job managing food waste—sending unused food, like whole pans of lasagna from the cafeteria, to food banks;  other food waste is sent to feed pigs at a local farm. But this is a way of utilizing our green waste so it doesn’t go into landfills, and at the same time reducing WPI’s fossil fuel consumption. With this plan, WPI could support the farm and philanthropy, and still power portions of the campus with green fuel. It’s a suggestion. WPI is already doing good stuff. Maybe one day we can do even more.

–By Sharon Gaudin