Liberal Arts Leader: Rachel Burton ’96, Women’s Studies

Rachel Burton at the Piedmont Biofuels Plant in Pittsboro. (photo by Beth Lawrence)

Claim to Fame: Partner/Co-Founder, Former Research Director, Piedmont Biofuels, Pittsboro NC. In 2010, the company commissioned the first commercial-scale enzymatic biodiesel plant of its kind in the United States.

Acclaim: 2011 Biodiesel Researcher of the Year, National Biodiesel Board.

Nickname: Wrench Wench

Rachel Burton Says: “You can do anything you want with a women’s studies major. It’s just a matter of how you apply yourself….  there is definitely a connection between the fact I was a women’s studies major and I went on to pursue a nontraditional career, and to understand and further my experience of being a woman in the workplace.”


Rachel Burton didn’t just land a great job, she invented one. After earning her women’s studies degree at Carolina, she blazed a circuitous career path to become a nationally recognized, pioneering leader in the alternative fuel industry. Piedmont Biofuels Industrial LLC produces clean renewable energy from recycled vegetable oil, waste fats and grease. The company’s biodiesel fuels trucks, cars and school buses all over North Carolina.

After UNC, Burton traveled overseas and became interested in sustainable agriculture. She decided it would be handy if she learned how to repair and maintain farm vehicles and equipment. So when she settled back in rural North Carolina, she took a class on small-engine repair which led to a two-year degree in automotive technology via the Perkins Sex Equity Vocational program. She later worked as a mechanic at the local car dealership, and taught automotive mechanics at Central Carolina Community College’s campus in Pittsboro.

That’s when she learned she could lower her carbon footprint by using fossil-free fuel made from recycled vegetable oil. She began teaching others how to produce biofuel and went on to co-found a groundbreaking Biofuels Program at the community college, where she also studied sustainable agriculture.

Piedmont Biofuels’ eco-industrial complex is located on the whimsically named Lorax Lane. (photo by Beth Lawrence)

Lyle Estill, one of Burton’s first students in the biofuels program, later became a business partner. Estill, Burton and Leif Forer, another biofuels instructor, co-founded Piedmont Biofuels, first as a cooperative. Then in 2005 they developed Piedmont Biofuels Industrial at an abandoned factory on the edge of Pittsboro. Burton created and designed the laboratory and oversaw its research program through last year. Over the past two years she led a United States Department of Energy research project investigating the use of enzymes in biodiesel production.

Burton combined her interests in sustainable agriculture and sustainable fuels with an amazing collection of allies at Piedmont Biofuels eco-industrial complex, located on whimsically named Lorax Lane. Today the site features Piedmont Biofarm (a successful, community-supported agricultural venture), Screech Owl Greenhouses (year-round hydroponically produced vegetables), the Abundance Foundation (supporting sustainable food and energy) and other independent enterprises committed to economic and environmental sustainability.

*We learned about Rachel Burton’s career path in the book, Transforming Scholarship: Why Women’s and Gender Studies Students Are Changing Themselves and the World (Routledge, 2011), co-authored by Michele Tracy Berger, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at UNC. Burton is one of six change agents profiled in the book.