PEMBROKE – Professors at two North Carolina universities are developing a device that could allow farmers to fuel tractors with biodiesel they create from their own crops.

In November, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and N.C. A&T University received a $750,000 federal grant to create affordable alternative fuels for farmers using readily available crops.

Professors from the two schools are trying to build an affordable machine for farmers that will turn plant oils into cheap biodiesel.

“Ideally, they will be able to grow their own fuel,” said Tom Dooling, the chemistry department chairman at UNC-Pembroke.

Siva Mandjiny, a chemistry professor at UNC-Pembroke, is leading a team composed of Dooling, student Eric Leviner and two associate professors that will develop a cheap and easy way for farmers to make the fuel.

A team of professors led by N.C. A&T’s Ghasem Shahbazi will engineer the device, which will initially be built on a small scale, said Cornelia Tirla, an assistant professor of chemistry who is working with the UNC-Pembroke group.

Part of the challenge for the Pembroke team will be creating a device that is inexpensive, Tirla said. Products typically involved in making biodiesel are highly corrosive. Equipment usually used to make the fuel is made out of expensive stainless steel.

The group is hoping to meet that challenge using a new process to make the fuel.

Scientists at N.C. A&T are developing a new kind of catalyst, which turns the oils into fuel, Mandjiny said.

“The potassium hydroxide is a very powerful base, and it is actually dangerous to work with,” Dooling said about a compound typically used in a catalyst. “This eliminates that from the catalyst.”

Using the new, reusable catalyst, the group hopes to create the fuel for less than $1.20 per gallon.

The program will run for three years, starting in January. Mandjiny’s team hopes to have a prototype operating in barns by the project’s completion.

The professors are connecting to farmers through the BioNetwork at Robeson Community College. The network, which matches agricultural needs with scientific solutions, spurred the idea for the research project, Mandjiny said.

“I want to help these farmers locally,” Mandjiny said. “The education finally has to be used for the public.”