Under the tutelage of a major engine manufacturer, the Indianapolis Zoo is now converting leftover cooking oil into biofuel to power its maintenance vehicles. Cummins engineers built the on-site system, spearheaded the science and guided the zoo’s staff through the initial production of the biodiesel, now powering two maintenance vehicles with plans to add more. The partners say it’s a small project in terms of environmental impact, but much bigger in the message it aims to deliver to the public.

“Part of the reason we wanted to partner with the zoo is the enormous outreach it has with visitors,” says Cummins Associate Counsel Joe Sawin. “A large part of this was not so much the use [of biodiesel]—which we expect to be relatively small—but the educational component to get the message out that you can make a difference even if it’s something small.”

Sawin says one of the core values of the Columbus-based manufacturer is to serve the communities “in which we live,” and Cummins will soon have a new home in Indianapolis when it locates its global distribution headquarters in the city. Its engineers saw an opportunity they could sink their teeth into in the zoo’s food services.

The zoo is now taking vegetable oil used to cook food in one of its cafes and, rather than dumping it as usual, converting it into biodiesel for its Kubotas, the small utility vehicles used on the property for maintenance. The zoo built a structure to house the biodiesel processing equipment, and Cummins supplied much of the startup funding through a grant.

“You take the used vegetable oil and add an ingredient that acts as a catalyst and, over time, the two ingredients mix and cook together,” says Sawin, who is a liaison between the zoo and Cummins engineers. “The two separate through a process called esterification, and one of those products is the oil—the biodiesel that can be used as fuel.”

The zoo introduces the new fuel to the Kubotas’ diesel engines by filling the tank with just 5 percent biodiesel and the remainder traditional fuel, gradually increasing the ratio to 20 percent biodiesel. Two vehicles are now operating on the mixture, and four more are being added. The zoo aims to have about seven of its Kubotas using biodiesel by the end of the year, which would represent half of its maintenance fleet.

“We do everything we can to try to operate in an environmentally-friendly way, but also, we have to keep in mind we’re a business—we receive no tax support at all,” says Indianapolis Zoo Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Norah Fletchall. “We’re always looking at conservation and sustainability projects that meet that duality of being environmentally smart and business smart. This project fits both of those.”

The zoo calculates that the return on its initial investment for the project will be about three to five years, “so it makes a strong business case for us to do this,” says Fletchall. Methodically testing the vehicles with the biodiesel, the zoo is hopeful the entire fleet could eventually make the transition. The effort is just one small piece of its mission to advance animal conservation locally and throughout the world.

“If we can make a positive impact on the environment, in turn, that has a positive impact on animals,” says Fletchall. “This project is helping us save a little bit of usage of diesel fuel, while at the same time telling a really powerful story to our guests about how little things—when taken collectively—can really make a positive impact on the environment.”

Fletchall says Cummins’ guidance helped the zoo make a smooth transition to biofuel.

Sawin says Cummins helped the zoo apply the science behind biodiesel on a practical level.

Fletchall says a lot of learning had to take place on the front end to launch the project.

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