Local students participate in biodiesel project

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  • Several Sparta High School students involved in the biodiesel program are shown here with physics teacher Andrew Bickerton, left, and Biology and Anatomy teacher Ken Scognamiglio, right.



SPARTA — The Sparta Education Foundation funded a grant at Sparta High School to convert cooking oil into biodiesel, a renewable by-product that can be used as an energy source.

Students from many different classes, including Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Environmental Science, are currently participating in the biodiesel project.

Students in the DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America), a national organization for students interested in marketing and management, are using the biodiesel project as a topic in their state competition. All of the participating students have learned a tremendous amount about the use, creation and relevance of alternative energy sources as part of this innovative program, according to a Sparta Education Foundation news release.

The biodiesel project is coordinated by a core group of high school science teachers including Ken Scognamiglio, Andrew Bickerton and Rusty Brown. These teachers are also involving students in the Recycling and Environmental Club with the project.

“The Sparta Education Foundation has allowed us to create a biodiesel creation program,” said Biology and Anatomy teacher Ken Scognamiglio. “This program explores an alternative energy source that fuses together the disciplines of science, technology, and engineering, and would not be possible without an SEF grant.”

Some future uses of biodiesel produced at the high school include using a biodiesel-fueled generator to power classrooms, light the stage in student productions or enable audio uses.

“The kids are coming up with lots of great ideas,” said Physics teacher Andrew Bickerton.

Mike Meisel, a senior at the high school, developed a computer program to calculate the optimal ratio of vegetable oil and reactants as it is heated in the student-made reactor during the initial processing stage.

Senior Matt Saba came up with the titration calculations to accurately measure the quality of the starting oil and final product. DECA student Eric Reinhard helped prepare a 30-page research paper on the biodiesel project for the statewide marketing competition.

Biodiesel is a sustainable fuel made from vegetable oil. Unlike fossil fuels such as coal or petroleum, biodiesel is a renewable energy source that can continually be remade. This fuel can run any piece of equipment that uses a diesel motor such as home oil furnaces, diesel vehicles and generators. After the cooking oil has been filtered and separated, the glycerin produced during the process can be used to make soap, another project the high school students are looking forward to creating.

The program has already completed several batches of biodiesel, converting waste vegetable oil from local restaurants including Homer’s as well as donations from teachers and students. The students researched the chemistry underlying the reactions that would be taking place and developed a biodiesel conversion plan. The equipment necessary for production was designed and built by the students and teachers. Students executed the planned procedure with excellent results, meeting all their project goals except the actual powering of the generator, which will have to wait until the warmer spring weather cooperates since the generator operates outdoors.

The program was presented during the 8th grade orientation and featured in the principal’s newsletter to parents. Currently, the project is completely student-run, and the advisors are present solely for guidance. Students have worked together to complete every aspect of this project on their own, and have created more than 15 gallons of biodiesel.

In keeping with the eco-friendly activities at the high school and Recycling and Environmental Club, students are re-planting chestnut trees on Sparta Mountain, many of which were obliterated by a fungus, according to project coordinator Rusty Brown, a Biology and Ecology teacher.

The Endangered Species habitat project is another program taking place on Sparta Mountain. Brown said the state is creating early successional habitats for the endangered Golden-winged warbler. It is one of the last places in New Jersey where this endangered bird still nests. Sparta students are helping to remove invasive species from the new forest openings.

Ken Scognamiglio also said that the Recycling and Environmental Club will be placing large cardboard boxes in classrooms to collect paper that has only been printed on one side. The blank side of the paper will be useful as note paper or for math students to use when calculating problems.

“We are so happy about the many achievements that have come from the biodiesel program,” said Don Cutshall, president of the SEF. “Several members of the SEF recently enjoyed an excellent presentation given by the students and teachers about the program, and we were all impressed with the students’ depth of knowledge and their obvious enthusiasm. It’s gratifying to know that the SEF grant to fund the high school’s biodiesel program is an unqualified success on every level.”

Sparta Education Foundation has awarded more than $477,000 in grants to all five of Sparta’s public schools since 2007. The Foundation is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to engage the entire community in philanthropic giving that strengthens the public schools, supports teachers, and inspires students.

For more information visit spartaeducationfoundation.org

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