This lab is a keeper!

Fuel from plants? Mark Starkey of Western Reserve High School in Huron County took his Mechanical Principles class through the process of making their own, using this biodiesel lesson.

“The class was broken up into two separate teams who were to work together to produce biodiesel fuel from three different types of oils: Plenish, a jug of canola oil purchased from the supermarket, and a bottle labeled “vegetable” oil,” Starkey said. “The students were supposed to formulate their own “recipe” for producing biodiesel using sources from the internet and YouTube (and they found some rather interesting videos of individuals producing what they were calling “biodiesel”!)The two groups each came up with their own recipe, so they used different amounts of oil, KOH, and Methanol, but the requirement was that they had to have at least 100 ml of biodiesel once separated and washed.

“Well, original procedures changed because of the amount of allotted class time and the amount of time that it took to properly produce biodiesel. With that being said, each group only produced one sample of biodiesel, instead of three. This was also the first time that I had ever done this activity in class, so I figured that we bit off more than we could chew here and we will chalk that up to an educational learning experience!

“Originally, we wanted to test to see how we could maximize output of biodiesel using minimal inputs—come up with the most EFFICIENT biodiesel-producing formula—while also finding out which oil would be best to produce biodiesel with. Since each group only produced one sample of biodiesel, we really couldn’t determine which oil was more efficient. Also, when both groups formulated their recipes for making biodiesel, I later found out that their recipes were different. We could only calculate efficiencies within each individual group, not between the groups.

“Following the production of the biodiesel, we actually calculated how much it would cost to produce one gallon of biodiesel on a commercial basis, based only on the inputs (variable costs). We also tested our biodiesel in the pop pop boats. Both groups’ biodiesel did burn, but it was argued by students that the distance/speed traveled by the boats was not a fair assessment of the quality of the biodiesel. One of the pop pop boats always was superior, even when the groups switched boats. So the kids figured out it was the luck of the boat, not the quality of the burn of their biodiesel that was more of a determining factor. So, we also learned that we need a more scientific procedure to determine superiority of biodiesel based on quality of burn!

“The students enjoyed the activities. As I mentioned before, this was the first time we had produced any biodiesel in this class. So, the students felt as if they were the pioneers of a specific project that will be carried on in years to come. They took ownership and also proposed numerous ideas of how they could change the project or the focus of the study in the future.”

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