EAST MACHIAS, Maine — The beaker in the science lab at Washington Academy holds two levels of thick liquid. The one at the bottom is dark, almost iodine-colored. It’s glycerin.
But most of the liquid is transparent pale yellow. It’s pure biodiesel, an alternative fuel created by students that will be used to heat the school’s greenhouse next fall and winter.
Creating biodiesel fuel is just one way teacher Dan Spranger’s coastal ecology class has been changing life on the school’s campus.
The class has set up a small but operable wind turbine. The students participated in a solar panel project just down the hill from the school at the Down East Salmon Federation facility. There is the furnace that will burn the biodiesel that in turn will create food for the school.
A recycling project brought forward by two students is saving the school thousands of dollars annually.
The goal is development of an environmental ethic through curriculum.
“What we are trying to instill in our students,” Spranger said Friday, “is that the status quo doesn’t work anymore. We are trying to train entrepreneurs by showing them that it isn’t business as usual.”
Some get it, while others don’t, he said.
“The light bulb might not necessarily go on in class,” he said. “But I have high hopes that in their lifetime it will.”
Spranger said that by planting trees, growing food and working with alternative energy, the students are exposed to a more environmentally conscious way of life.
“It is a matter of providing these young people the opportunity to build on and draw from these experiences later in life,” he said.
The lessons appear to be taking root.
Zack Roos, 17, who lives on a farm in Jonesboro, convinced the Washington Academy school board to replace two garbage containers with one recycling container, a move Spranger said has saved the academy thousands of dollars and removed tons of recyclables from the waste stream.
Roos said the experiments with biodiesel have convinced him to think about converting a motor vehicle or heating his home in the future with the recycled oil.
“I’ve learned I can definitely make it myself,” he said. “It is very easy.”
His lab partner, Fred Barstow of Perry, said the ingredients are “easy to come by.”
The school obtains its major raw ingredient — used vegetable oil — from local restaurants and the kitchen at the University of Maine at Machias.
“Some community members deliver their used oil right to our doorstep,” Spranger said.
The strained oil is mixed with a combination of methyl alcohol and lye.
“At this point, it is cloudy, like orange juice,” Roos said, and it still smells a bit like french fries.
The product is allowed to settle for at least 48 hours, Spranger said, and then the glycerin that has formed and sunk to the bottom is drawn off. It can be used to make soap or compost. The fuel then is stored.
The school recently purchased a fuel mixing system that could provide hundreds of gallons of fuel.
“What we are doing here in a beaker, we now have the capability to do in 40-gallon batches,” Spranger said. “We will now be able to have a 12-month growing season [in the greenhouse].”
Cars, school buses and furnaces all eventually could be converted to biodiesel, Spranger said.
“It is renewable, cleaner than petroleum diesel, works in all diesel engines and is safe to handle and store,” he said. “It is combustible but not flammable.”
Spranger has been taking his portable fuel mixing system to other high schools and colleges in the state, demonstrating the academy’s production program.
He said the students used experiments throughout the school year to come up with their unique “recipe” for fuel.
“We measure pH, specific gravity and percent of yield,” Spranger said. “We measure cloud points and gel points.”
Spranger said the ecology curriculum is preparing his students for a responsible, environmentally aware future.
“Biodiesel is not the end-all solution,” he said. “But it is one piece of the energy puzzle.”