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The biodiesel crew demonstrate how they make biofuel (Michael Friedman).
MF: The environmental benefits of brewing biodiesel are not clear-cut. In the process of making the fuel, the kids have an opportunity to think about how biodiesel might fit into our society. One of the goals is for the kids to become citizens of their community, who don’t take what they hear at face value, but dig a little deeper. Science is often construed as a black-and-white discipline. But real science is done in the gray area.
MF: Science is accomplished through argument. Principles and theories that now seem self-evident were once contested. The action of doing science returns us to the gray area. When we make biodiesel we’re learning from what other people did in their experiments, adapting their methods to fit our apparatus, and trying to improve upon the process. Beyond the doing of science, there is the gray area of the benefits—should we be doing the science? Making biodiesel encourages the kids to evaluate this fuel according to their own values and ask whether it makes practical, economic, and environmental sense to them.
MF: It started about two years ago in our science class. We were focused on the issue of energy. We started by looking at energy needs and the geopolitics of energy. Then we looked at global warming and the carbon cycle, which led to an idea: we could close the carbon-dioxide loop and even close the recycling loop by using waste oil to make fuel. We made small batches of biodiesel in class and then asked, “What did we just do?” That’s when we got into the chemistry. Then I asked if anyone was interested in taking this to the next level. A group of eight students (five sixth graders and three seventh graders) volunteered, and we started meeting after school to build a processor.
Merck litmus paper, 1934
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