Feature Stories

NJIT Alums Build the Biggest Biodiesel Plant in the U.S.

NJIT graduate Paul Lavella, the lead engineer and designer of the biodiesel plant, gave NJIT students a tour of the plant.

A team of NJIT graduates is building a biodiesel production plant -- one that will be the largest in North America.

When it opens in the fall, Metro Biofuels will produce 110 million gallons of biofuel a year, more than any other plant in the U.S.

A biodiesel plant, especially one of this size, will have many benefits for the metro region and the nation. First, biodiesel is a clean-burning fuel that reduces pollution and enhances air quality (The fuel will be used for diesel-powered vehicles and as home heating oil).

In addittion the plant, located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, will create green jobs, lessen America’s reliance on foreign oil and enhance U.S. production of sustainable fuel, says Paul Lavella, an NJIT alumnus who designed the plant.

“When I was a student at NJIT the area was surrounded by manufacturing companies, most of which are now gone,” said Lavella, the plant manager at Metro Biofuels. “This plant will help bring manufacturing back to the U.S.”

Lavella is using his NJIT education to design and build the plant. He has two degrees from NJIT: a bachelors’ degree in chemical engineering (1977), and a master’s in management engineering (1986). After he graduated, he worked as a project engineer for companies such as Econ Laboratories, International Flavors and Fragrances, and Troy Chemical. He was also a corporate process engineering manager at L’Oreal, covering all North American operations. While later working as an engineering consultant, he learned that the owners of Metro Terminals were developing a pilot plant for a biodiesel facility.  He joined Metro in early 2009 as the plant manager, when he began working on the plant. He also functions as the chief engineer for the design, construction and operation of the plant.

As soon as he was hired, Lavella set upon developing Metro Biofuel’s staff, and he turned to NJIT.

He hired John Siedlarewicz, who studied mechanical engineering at NJIT in the 1960s, as Metro’s principal mechanical designer and project engineer. Siedlarewicz worked previously for engineering firms such as C-E Lumus, Scientific Design and Lockwood Green. He also hired NJIT graduate Albert Young to work as a project engineer. Young, who earned a chemical engineering degree in 1992, has assisted Lavella with the design and construction of the plant. Young previously worked for Elementus and Envar Services.

The three have designed the advanced-generation biodiesel production plant so that it can produce biodiesel fuel from a variety of sustainable feedstock, such as recycled restaurant grease and soy, canola and vegetable oils. Metro has also partnered with a non-profit group that collects used cooking oil and grease from NYC restaurants. The plant will refine the oils and grease and use it as an ingredient for biofuel. This will help keep the grease out of drains and wastewater treatment plants.

Biodiesel blended products reduce carbon dioxide, sulfur and particulate levels in the air. And because of that, the New York City Council passed a law mandating that all home heating oil used in the city be blended with at least two percent biodiesel fuel. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited Metro Biofuels to announce the new law, which takes effect October 2012. The law will be a boon for Metro Biofuels; the company intends to use 20 percent of its production capacity to meet the requirements of the mandate.  Metro will also be the biggest biodiesel plant in New York City.    

Lavella recently invited a group of chemical engineering majors at NJIT to visit the plant. He gave the students a tour of the plant.  Norman Loney, chairman of the Otto H. York Department of Chemical, Biological and Pharmaceutical Engineering Department, also took the tour. Loney listened raptly as Lavella explained the plant's design.   

“The biodiesel plant is an amazing feat of sustainable design and engineering,” said Loney. “I’m delighted that our students had the chance to see how chemical engineering works in the real world.”

Loney says the department does all it can to expose students, especially undergraduates, to real-life chemical engineering. He takes student on field trips to chemical engineering plants and offices. And he invites engineers and executives to campus to speak to students who belong to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. The department also has a strong co-op program, run in concert with Career Development Services, through which students get academic credit for working in the field.

The trip to the biodiesel plant, adds Loney, was a chance for students to see the design and build of what will soon be the nation's largest biofuel plant. It also gave the students a chance to meet the NJIT alums who are the brains behind the plant.

Alex Tweed, one of the students who took the tour, said the plant showed him the real-life application of his education. “After seeing the many operations that the biodiesel plant will be running, I know that my classes in Heat and Mass Transfer, Separations, and Thermodynamics will pay off,” said Tweed, a senior majoring in chemical engineering.

Paulina Alvarez, another student on the tour, said what most impressed her about the plant was its size. “What amazed me was that with a 110 million gallon a year capacity, it will be the largest biofuels plant in North America,” said Alvarez, a junior majoring in chemical engineering.

During the tour, Lavella said he has fond memories of NJIT.  He belonged to the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, where had had many friends or “brothers.” He was close to many of his fellow chemical engineering majors and says he had many terrific professors, had many terrific professors, chief among them Professor Angela Perna, who Lavella had for a Mass Transfer class. Perna still teaches at NJIT – this is his 45th year. He also loved the teaching of Professor Deran Hanesian, who taught him Kinetics.

“I had great professors at NJIT,” Lavella said. “I use my NJIT education every day to design and build this biodiesel plant. I’m very grateful for the education I received at NJIT.”

(By Robert Florida)