Mo. high school prepares to expand biodiesel production center

By Ron Kotrba | October 10, 2012

In Fenton, Mo., Rockwood Summit High School students and chemistry teacher Darrin Peters have taken hands-on learning to a whole new level with biodiesel production. The journey began five years ago when an organic chemistry student learned from Peters that fuel could be produced from waste restaurant grease. She presented research and plans for laboratory experiments to produce biodiesel and, since then, Rockwood Summit High School’s advanced classes in organic chemistry, authentic science research and environmental science have expanded their laboratory work to regularly produce biodiesel fuel from waste vegetable oil collected from the school’s cafeteria. Now, after using a small, dedicated space in one of the school’s storage sheds to produce biodiesel used to power two test vehicles for the past few years, Peters and his students are ready to expand.

Peters is heading up the approval and financing process to build a new facility on the school’s property, the Falcon Renewable Fuel Educational Center. The proposed center would be 20 feet by 25 feet, and is expected to cost around $100,000.

“We got an architect who volunteered his time to find the optimal spot,” Peters said. After getting approval from the district, the architect drew up the plans. “We have to have the fire marshal’s approval to build this building too, of course,” Peters said. “The marshal is a busy man, and he said, ‘I’m sure there’s some high school doing this in the nation already, I’ll see whether I can find that.’ Well, he couldn’t. What he did instead was put me in touch with Code Consultants Inc., they wrote us a document that shows all the code for the area, specifically for the proposed building. That’s probably a $5,000 document they did for us, gratis.”

The school’s insurance company was also contacted, to make sure the proposed building would be insured and that it could be used as an educational facility to help teach the community and students about renewable fuels.

While the school’s initial production equipment and design may have been admittedly crude, the new processor and design is markedly more sophisticated. “We started out with a poly mix tank and methoxide tank, it was all strictly manual so you’d plug it in and have to babysit it,” Peters said. “Word got out that this is what we were doing and one person from the community was redoing his biodiesel equipment because he had some problems, so he just donated it to us. That one was better, it was a little safer, a little bigger, it had a better pump on it, and it had an inline heater but it was still poly construction. So then after that, I have some kids really interested in PLC programming, so we had a conversation two years ago like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could operate production from the classroom, and monitor and pull data from it, from the classroom?’”

The school recently won a grant to help pay for solenoid valves to facilitate automation. A local process engineer, who Peters said has sort of “adopted” the kids, obtained a PLC for the school from Unitronics. “We were also able to get a 250-gallon cone bottom stainless steel tank from Aaron Equipment Co. as a donation, and a local plumbing company donated a bunch of stainless pipe and spark-proof pumps so, honestly, we are two months away from having a biodiesel processor that can be operated and monitored from my classroom computer.” As a result of this work, some of the students are trying to win college scholarships. “I think they will,” Peters said. “These kids are phenomenal. I know this will work, based on all the work they are putting into it.”  

The new educational center will be built around the new, automated production unit. “We need the center because we will have that new up-to-date processor,” Peters said. “We want to be able to go all the way, we want to have room to experiment with algae and make glycerin soap. We want room to say, ‘Yes, we can try that,’ when a student says, ‘Mr. Peters, what if we tried this?’ There are all of these different ways devoted to get kids to take more science, that’s part of it, and this program has done the job for that.”  

While the students are learning the ins and outs of biodiesel production, the program teaches them much more than that. “What I think they learn, what I hope they learn, is that having and reaching a goal is not always an easy thing,” Peters said, “but if you are determined and stay with it, and decide that failure is not an option, then you will succeed. Once the students become successful at making quality biodiesel, that sticks with them and they’re happy and proud to show other people what they’ve learned about the chemistry. They’re never going to be successful with that the first time, as far as pushing that reaction all the way to the right. I don’t give them cookbook labs for this, it’s all discovery, so they have to come up with a process to do that in the lab, and then they have to find ways to verify completion, or whether there’s water in the fuel or too much soap, these types of things. Since they’ve done this project, our chemistry numbers have been much higher.”  

“Taking the organic chemistry class Mr. Peters teaches, I expected it to be really difficult,” said A.J. Park, a Rockwood Summit senior. “I was bracing myself to have meltdowns when I would have to take the tests, but it’s not that hard if you put in the effort. I am really glad I got to take this class and learn about biodiesel, I’m sure in the future it will help a lot. I’ve also learned that perseverance in biodiesel can go a long way—and having passion also. It helps you learn so much more than if you gave up on the first try.”  

Austin Martin, a Rockwood Summit senior, plans to go to university next year and study in the biomedical or chemical engineering fields. Not only has Martin learned how to make biodiesel, purify the fuel in the wash towers and make soap from glycerin, but he’s also helping set up the programming for automation. “One of the things we’re working on is developing the automated process, engineering diagrams, how to set things up, making sure you have the proper procedures so you don’t make mistakes later,” Martin said. “I’m working to program the PLC we got from Unitronics so the process runs smoothly. The logic is similar to electric diagramming so all the power moves from the left rail to the right. I took one programming class at school, but I also knew stuff that I learned outside of school. I guess I’m tech savvy, so I picked up on it and could translate a lot of it to the Visalogic program, which is what we use to program the Unitronics PLC.”

While students are learning about biodiesel’s chemical reactions, those aren’t the only reactions in this story. When Park tells people about what kind of work she and other students are involved in at the high school, they are shocked. “I think the main reaction we get is, ‘Are you high school students?’” she said. “They’re just surprised high school students would be doing this—it’s not like it’s complicated, but it’s not like high school work.”

Martin said, “People are generally pretty stunned, and they’re surprised that high school kids are doing this. Some colleges are doing it, but for high school kids to be doing this, I’d say it’s pretty unique.”  


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