Students research, advance alternative fuels

June 1, 2012 3:34:59 PM PDT
A group of west suburban researchers are working hard to create alternative fuels that are made faster, cheaper and that burn cleaner than anything else on the market -- and they haven't even graduated from high school yet.

The Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora is a state-supported residential high school that cultivates exceptional young minds in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. And in a few years, the fruits of some of its students' labor might just help you to live green.

It starts with old fruit that would otherwise rot in the trash. But in the hands of the young scientists, it ends up as a viable alternative fuel -- ethanol.

"As we were reading articles we came across one that said twenty percent of watermelons are left on the field because they are blemished and they can't be sold," Olivia Legan, senior IMSA, said. "We worked with wasted fruits from fields such as like watermelons and apples and we converted it to ethanol using the sugars that were in these fruits."

The goal would be to craft equipment that would allow farmers to easily convert their wasted fruit to alternative fuel and power their tractors and other farm equipment at little to no cost.

Mitchell Bieniek believes he can go a step beyond ethanol. He has used a type of fast-growing grass called miscanthus to create butanol -- a fuel that may burn even cleaner that ethanol.

"Butanol is more chemically similar to gasoline and so you can actually run butanol in your engine without the modifications that are necessary to run ethanol in your engine," Bieniek said.

Science teacher Branson Lawrence believes some of his students' findings could lead to bigger breakthroughs down the road.

"We have had students work on trying to develop different alcohol and different hydrocarbon fuels from common sources other than corn. . . We have had ones that have used waste products to develop everything from waste fruits to manure on farm," Lawrence said.

Some of the students' work is already being implemented at the school's energy center, which is sponsored by ComEd. Students monitor the solar panels and wind turbines that have been installed to maximize energy production. There's even a student project testing surfaces for a future installation of a green roof. Bieniek collaborated with students from China on his project. He believes working internationally is a natural next step.

"The idea that greenhouse gases fill up the atmosphere and create a global warming issue that not only effects us it effects China as well. It effects the entire world and the only way we are actually going to effectively solve these problems is if we all collaborate together and we come up with these global solutions," Bieniek said.

The Illinois Math And Science Academy's energy center taps about 50 to 100 students each year to work exclusively on advancing alternative energy. For more details about the school's programs, visit imsa.edu


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