Class collaborations create ethanol and biodiesel at Fort Jennings

Students in Jeff Jostpille’s Fort Jennings Environmental Science class have recently been studying alternative energy sources, researching and experimenting with wind power, solar power, and hydrogen fuel cell power. They then turned their attention to fuels produced from biomass. Two such fuels include biodiesel and ethanol. Working with Chemistry teacher Heather Harmon, the two classes combined their knowledge to successfully create ethanol and biodiesel.

The Fort Jennings students prepared 4 different set-ups for their experiment: 2 varieties of sweet corn, an Indian corn, and a popcorn. In the process, different enzymes are added to break down the starch into simple sugars. Then yeast is added to convert those sugars to alcohol. Next, the corn mash is filtered and the liquid is added to the distiller. A very slow heating process is applied and the ethanol evaporates to a gas, which is forced into a cooling tube where it condenses back to liquid and is captured in a flask. This must happen at temperatures between 173-212 degrees F to avoid contamination.

Of the 4 set-ups tested, the students found that the popcorn produced the most alcohol.

The two classes also worked on producing biodiesel. Typically, biodiesel is made from soybeans or used oils such as fryer oil from a restaurant. Biodiesel burns cleaner than diesel made from fossil fuels and is renewable, since the carbon produced in burning it goes back to the next generation of soybean plants who use it in photosynthesis to produce more oil. The Fort Jennings students used virgin vegetable oil. When the alcohol, methanol, is mixed with the catalyst, sodium hydroxide, and vegetable oil is added, the oil is broken down into biodiesel and the by-product glycerin.

Having the ability in a lab situation to produce these kinds of real world applications is a great learning tool, Jostpille and Harmon said. And being able to work together, in a cross-curricular way, was beneficial to both classes of students.