A group of six senior engineering majors are working not only to help save JMU Dining Services money and time, but also to help the environment.
For the past year and a half, Robert McCloud, Timothy Brooks, Jack Cash, Kent Graham and Connor Heede have been working on a way to better dispose of food waste produced by E-Hall as part of their two-year capstone project.
"Composting is a technology that has been used before across the country but never here at JMU," Cash said.
The group designed and built a large composter, which can turn up to 100 pounds of food waste into humus, decomposed organic material, in one to two weeks.
The process would work by dispensing the waste in the barrel, where microorganisms and occasional turning of the waste would turn it into humus.
The normal composting process can take up to three months, according to the University of Illinois Extension at Urbana Champaign, a program in the university that teaches the technology to farmers in that area.
Currently, JMU trucks its waste to a farm in Roanoke, where some of it's composted. The rest ends up sitting in landfills, Graham said.
"It doesn't make sense from a carbon footprint standpoint to use that much fuel to do it," Graham said. "On-site makes it more environmentally sound."
During the project, the group was awarded the People, Prosperity and the Planet grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, worth $15,000, according to the EPA website. This allowed the students to buy better equipment for better research. The men applied for the grant in December 2010, and received it this summer.
"The P3 grant was a big spark; JMU only gives us $500 a year," Graham said. "It gave us a lot more room to make it better. Data acquisition equipment costs $2,000 to measure temperature, humidity and the climate."
Figuring out what would help JMU the most was carefully thought out.
"The main research surrounded the biological process," Graham said. "We had to decide from a sustainability perspective what the most efficient process was and the most cost effective."
Engineering professors Adebayo Ogundipe and Robert Nagel are the advisers of the project.
"What we do is provide them with technical guidance and a little bit of project management guidance," Ogundipe said. "They go out there and get the design assessment. We ask the questions."
Ogundipe, along with few other professors around the country, came up with the idea for the capstone project while teaching at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
"The idea was to have a composter that could handle that volume, that would compose that reaction to occur much faster than it normally would," Ogundipe said.
As the project nears its end, the men will get Excel Steel, a local company, to build the shaft that mixes the material inside the barrel, the final piece of the composter.
"It definitely would be greener than taking the food to the landfill, and the payoff probably wouldn't be too bad either," Cash said. "I think it would be good for JMU, that's what we are trying to prove to them."
Ogundipe said the students have come a long way since starting the assignment.
"At the beginning they didn't really understand what designing a chemical interaction system would involve, but now they understand it completely," Ogundipe said.
In April, the group will travel to Washington, D.C., to present its results.
In spring of 2012, the students hope to propose the project to JMU. If JMU decides to use the composter, the EPA will give a phase-two grant for $90,000 to put the composters all over campus.
Contact Sean Byrne at firstname.lastname@example.org.