Margaret Kerr and Erika Kubota in a Worcester State College chemistry lab

Thai Student and WSC Chemistry Professor Work on Biodiesel Project

September 29, 2008
By: Worcester State University News

Erika Kubota, a senior in industrial management at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, is the first student from that institution to accept Worcester State’s invitation for an academic exchange. She’s here for the fall semester working on her senior thesis under the direction of Professor of Chemistry Margaret Kerr, Ph.D.

Kubota is researching ways to extract biodiesel from soybean oil using ferric chloride as a catalyst. Ferric chloride eliminates a corrosive component in the process, potassium hydroxide, which is better known as lye.

“No one has used this catalyst before,” Kubota  said. “My adviser in Thailand wants me to find out whether it works.”

Her academic major entails equal parts of accounting, economics and management, and chemistry. She’s sitting in on Kerr’s organic chemistry class as a refresher. Her thesis project is rooted in chemistry and economics. What’s the cost effectiveness of the materials used in biodiesel production? What’s the cost of the process itself?

She will present her research results when she returns to Chulalongkorn University in December. She envisions doing some sort of chemistry for a multi-national corporation after graduation.

“In Thailand, there’s not much green chemistry,” Kubota said. Her thesis adviser therefore wanted her to do her research here. Kerr, whose specialty is green chemistry, spent the fall 2007 semester as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Chulalongkorn and began discussions about such an exchange program then.

“We may have four Thai students from Chulalongkorn here next fall to do research projects with our faculty,” Kerr said.

The Chemistry Department is creating an upper level research course that will allow faculty to teach in their research specialties; students will do research under their supervision. They envision a mix of Chulalongkorn University and Worcester State students in such a course.

Kubota may have an opportunity to try her biodiesel research using a new processor at the college.  Bob Daniels, the college’s environmental health and safety officer, says that this biodiesel processor will turn waste cooking oil from Chartwells into fuel for the campus tractors. These do lawn mowing in summer and snow blowing in winter.

Daniels is scouting out a place to house the biodiesel processor. He estimates it will be up and running in four to six weeks.

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