Vickroy: Shepard students make biodiesel fuel for Crestwood
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy November 6, 2013 8:10PM
Updated: December 9, 2013 10:25AM
It may smell like french fries, but it’s really progress that’s cooking in Crestwood.
Residents soon will be getting a whiff of a science project with real-life impact.
Students at Shepard High School in Palos Heights are putting the finishing touches on a mini-refinery designed to convert used cooking oil into biodiesel fuel.
“We plan to cook our first batch next week,” physics teacher Brian Sievers said Tuesday.
The Crestwood public works building has become the students’ laboratory. They built the refinery there and will begin to change used cooking oil donated by Beggars Pizza into an eco-friendly fuel that will be used to power village utility vehicles.
The project enables students to apply chemistry, physics, mechanics and electricity in a way that helps a local town run greener and cheaper, Sievers said.
“We’re making the biodiesel right here in Crestwood and giving it to the village,” he said.
Sievers, a former mechanical engineer, has been teaching science for 14 years. It’s his second year with Community High School District 218.
“I love giving kids hands-on opportunities. This is a great way for them to use the things they learn in the classroom to really help people,” he said.
The Shepard teens, a mix of Advanced Placement physics students and younger science club members, began the ambitious project with a hot water heater, then added tanks and tubing. They will soon install solar panels on the roof of the building so they can make electricity to power the operation.
When Felicx Reyes, 15, learned of Sievers’ open invitation to join the project, “I jumped on it. It helps people. And it’s the way of the future. With biodiesel, there’s less pollution and less maintenance for vehicles.”
Erica Morales, a junior from Alsip, liked the idea of helping Crestwood because “they were willing to give us space, and it sounded like they really wanted it.”
Crestwood Mayor Lou Presta said the project is a “great opportunity for residents and high school students to work together. The project means a lot of good for everybody and will maybe help the village save some money.”
The five- to six-day conversion process involves heating the used oil and adding a mixture of methanol and potassium hydroxide. To clean the biodiesel fuel, students use air to first bubble it to settle out most of the glycerine. The final step in the process is drywashing, which is done by using filters filled with an ion exchange resin.
“It smells so good,” senior Maddy Kachold said.
She and Mike Peretz, also a senior, began filling out the paperwork for the project last spring. They helped write donation proposals and named the project “iDiesel.” Construction of the mini-refinery began in September.
Much of the materials and money needed to build it was donated by local businesses, including Home Depot, WCP Solar, Producers Chemical Co. and Batteries Plus. Along the way, other businesses have helped out, including Hog Wild and Famous Dave’s restaurants and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134.
Sievers estimates that the mini-refinery will be able to produce about 1,250 gallons of biodiesel a year, saving Crestwood an estimated $3,000 to $5,000 in fuel costs. He said glycerine, a byproduct of the refinement that basically is soap, may lead to a future hands-on project.
Maddy, who wants to be a doctor one day, said, “This is science that’s alive.” She said the group of 20 students is very diverse, but “we all work together like a family.”
Haya Alalfi, a Shepard senior, plans to study biology in college next year. During construction of the mini-refinery, the students were impressed with her carpentry skills.
“Haya works a power saw like I’ve never seen,” Maddy said.
“This project is a great opportunity to help us see what we want to do with our lives,” Haya said.
It’s also proof that teens working together really can make a difference.
“We’re just high school kids with limited resources,” Mike Peretz said, “but this shows we can have a big impact.”
Even though Aubrey Quick is not the “science type,” she signed up for the project because she likes community involvement and also was intrigued by the opportunity to apply academic skills to the real world.
“I’m in it for the experience and because I live in Crestwood,” she said. “This town has a bad image because of the (polluted drinking water scandal). This is a good thing to do to help improve its image.”