The glebe at the back of one of the buildings in Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) was practically out of use. There was a shed, abandoned for more than 20 years, used for garbage storage. Hoping to find better ways to manage the solid waste produced on the university’s Recife campus, employees and researchers found potential in this dead place. They created Berso (Biorrefinaria Experimental de Resíduos Sólidos Orgânicos, Experimental Biorefinery for Solid Organic Residues), which manufactures biogas and biodiesel. It will be the foundation for a model that will be replicable in 95 percent of Brazilian municipalities.

UFPE can be considered a separate city within the city. Spreading across 160 hectares, the campus at Pernambuco State capital city boasts daily human traffic of 40,000. Its 13 restaurants produce an average of one ton of discarded food during meal preparation. Each day, 50 liters of frying oil are discarded. Groundskeeping discards 10 tons of branches and leaves every 24 hours. All this material is the residual biomass, the accumulation of all organic residues collected within the university.

At Berso, the rubble that was in the shed was replaced by a pilot plant for production of biodiesel from culinary oil. The factory production rate is 100 liters of fuel per day. The aim is to increase this rate to 150 liters/day, which is enough to power all the university’s vehicles. Collection bins were installed in campus buildings, and this motivated the students and employees to bring used frying oil from home.

Processing oil into biodiesel is fast. Liquid is filtered, poured into a barrel and redirected to other tanks, where it remains for a period lasting between four and six hours. The process produces biodiesel and glycerin which, in turn, is processed into alcohol and reused in the production flow.

Outside Berso, there is the anaerobic biodigester, which receives food waste,  The waste is mixed with water and flows to the biodigester. There, when microorganisms act, carbonic dioxide and methane are released, then creating biogas, which is then turned into electric power.

This power is directed into the University mains, which lowers the electricity bill. “Today, we are already reducing the bill by R$50 (about $19USD) a day,”says Emmanuel Dutra, Professor at the Nuclear Power Department. “When the system enters in staggered configuration, and we have a 200-cubic meter reactor, we will save R$350,000 ($133,000 USD) a year.” The material left in the biodigester, with high nutrient content, is used as plant fertilizer and to accelerate the composting of residues from weeding and paring the campus grounds.

A person walks past dark green barrels and large, clear white containers in an industrial laboratory. The person is wearing white clothes and yellow rubber gloves, and their image is completely out of focus.

Equipment used for erection of the biodiesel plant can be found in building materials stores (Rafael Martins/Believe.Earth)

There is one more financial gain. “We save R$167 (about $63.50USD) each ton of waste we don’t send to the sanitary landfill,” says Rômulo Menezes, Professor at the Nuclear Power Department. “We can generate electric power and produce biofertilizer at a low cost.” When Berso starts operating at maximum load, the overall savings for the University will probably reach R$1,1 million ($418,000 USD) a year. And this seemed to be such a distant reality five years ago.

In 2012, the Environmental Management Board of UFPE studied all the different types of waste on campus, created working groups to devise better strategies, and proposed an institutional policy. “We aim to be a model city, which welcomes people who are interested in learning our practices,” says Fátima Xavier, Environmental Management Director at UFPE.

All the restaurants’ employees and grounds workers were trained in waste management. Every year, they attend refresher courses. Students, teachers and other employees are also instructed.

“This problem cannot be approached only from one side of the chain. We must think on all directions, from environmental education to recycling, and convince everyone to believe that the extra effort will be respected and enjoyed,” says Rômulo.

In the center of the photo, two men smile at the camera while holding together a bright, shining orb between their hands. Both men have white skin and straight hair. The one on the left has brown hair and is wearing a bright pink polo shirt. The one on the right has graying hair, square glasses with a thin wire frame, and is wearing a white and blue striped shirt. In the back is a door with a backlit frame that is out of focus, dark gray floor and light gray walls. On each side is vertical dark green metal grating.

Professors Emmanuel Dutra and Rômulo Menezes lead the Experimental Biorefinery Project (Rafael Martins / Believe.Earth)

Taracuá, an isolated community in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Amazonas State, inspires the working philosophy of the biorefinery: every system created inside the Recife campus must have replication potential for any other municipality, even those distant from the major urban centers. Starting from this way of thinking, teachers and students of UFPE aim to make their campus a model for biogas and biodiesel production, and to help to ensure a self-sustaining and affordable chain of production and waste disposal.

In building the equipment used in the pilot project, the teams spent less than R$1900 USD. At market prices, similar systems can cost up to $11,400USD. The biodiesel plant was erected using tools which can be found on building materials stores. Valves costed $4100USD. Barrels were recovered from a junkyard for R$30,00. The most expensive items were three pumps, $57 USD each, and two reactors, similar to those used on home breweries.

A woman, facing the camera, is looking up towards the sky with her arms hanging straight down next to her body and her hands held together at the hips. She has white skin, short brown wavy hair, and is wearing glasses with dark red frames. The woman is wearing a light blue shirt and black pants, and has a golden watch on her left wrist. She holds in her hands a white piece of paper about the size of a napkin. In the back is a tall tree and the grassy ground.

For Director Fátima Xavier, the biorefinery is part of a dream of a sustainable campus (Rafael Martins / Believe.Earth)

The creators of this infrastructure are not satisfied: they believe they can lower the creation costs for the biorefinery even more, thus making this project even more democratic and accessible, something truly replicable anywhere. Along with undergraduate, graduate/MSc and doctoral/PhD students, the professors have been studying ways to make the parts even smaller.

When the perfect formula is found, they will write a document and publish a step-by-step tutorial on the Internet, free of charge. Their desire is to show that affordable technology is a dream that can come true.