Students awarded for building solar-powered biodiesel processor

By Erin Voegele | April 15, 2011

The U.S. EPA presented the regional President’s Environmental Youth Award to a group of students at Chicago-based Mother McAuley High School April 13. The school’s EcoMacs Biodiesel Team built a solar-powered biodiesel processor, which was donated to a community in Haiti.

According to Roz Iasillo, chairperson of the school’s natural and health sciences department, the project began when the school was approached by a group from Michigan State University called Education for Prosperity. The group asked if Mother McAuley students would be interested in constructing a biodiesel processor, which would be donated to the village of Pichon, Haiti, and located at the village’s school. Since there is no electricity in the village, they had to figure out a way to power the processor with solar panels, Iasillo said.

“We started building the processor around Christmas of 2009, and then of course in January of 2010 the earthquake struck, which gave us a new sense of urgency around the project,” she said.  The processor was completed in May 2010 and shipped to Haiti over Memorial Day weekend.

The processor is currently in Port-au-Prince. “With all the unrest around the presidential elections, which happened in November, everything has kind of been held up,” Iasillo said, noting that a planned trip to Haiti had to be postponed. “We’re waiting now for things to settle down so that we can actually install the processor, teach the people how to use it, and then install LED lighting and the solar panels that we have also gotten for the [village’s] school,” she continued. A couple of students are planning to travel to Haiti to help with the installation process.

Although the project has been delayed, Iasillo noted that there isn’t a big hurry because feedstock is not currently available in the village to process into biodiesel. A jatropha farm was planted at the Pichon school in April 2010. “It will take about two or three years for the harvest to come in,” Iasillo said. “We anticipate that they’ll be able to make enough biodiesel to run all of the village’s farm equipment.” Biodiesel will also be burned in lamps to provide light in local homes. In addition to providing the village with economic opportunities to sell excess biodiesel, the glycerin coproduct will also likely be processed into soap that the villagers can sell.

The EcoMacs Biodiesel Team included 10 students: Danielle Crispo, Christine Schmidt, Sarah Zwickel, Christina Lopez, Eileen O’Donnell, Mary O’Donnell, Ana Vazquez, Jenna Krukowski, Kim Schmidt and Katherine Kezon. According to Iasillo, the girls were “over the moon” when presented with the award. “They were just so excited to be recognized as one of 10 schools in the entire country to be recognized,” she said. “To be recognized by the President was really quite an honor.”

Iasillo stressed how proud she is of the girls. They really had no construction, pipefitting, soldering or electrician skills going into this project, she said. Yet, they came together, and rallied around a village of people to do a good thing. “Winning the award is nice,” Iasillo said, “but it wasn’t why we went into it.” 


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