High School students turn cafeteria food scraps into gasoline using Holtzapple's MixAlco process

November 11, 2010
| By: Tim Schnettler

The search for alternative fuels is an ongoing quest, and a group of Houston high school students has taken the first steps toward turning cafeteria food scraps into gasoline using the MixAlco process developed by Texas A&M chemical engineering professor and Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) researcher Mark Holtzapple.

The students, who are part of the Alternative Energy Program at Booker T. Washington/High School for Engineering Professions (BTW-HSEP) that is led by engineering teacher Nghia Le, revealed their success in converting trash to gasoline to Holtzapple during a recent presentation at the high school that was attended by more than 50 people.

"Actually, it makes a tear come to my eye," Holtzapple said. "To take waste materials and turn it into gasoline has been my career objective. And now to see high school students doing that is fantastic."

Holtzapple and Le first met during the 2009 Science, Engineering, Technology and Math Teacher Summit, a conference for high school teachers hosted by Texas A&M University. Holtzapple was making a presentation and one hand in the back of the room kept shooting up. The hand belonged to Le.

Le, who along with the other teachers was there to get information and material to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, was fascinated with Holtzapple's presentation on the Star Rotor Engine, a more efficient car engine, and wondered if there was a way the project could be attempted by students in his Alternative Energy Program at the high school.

Holtzapple was appreciative of Le's enthusiasm, but he was quick to temper it, pointing out that the Star Rotor Engine project probably was not the best for the high school classroom. There was, however, another pet project of Holtzapple's that he felt could be beneficial to the students in Dr. Le's class - his MixAlco project, which converts biomass to biofuels.

"Out of the 200 teachers that were in the audience, he was the one that showed a lot of interest and enthusiasm," Holtzapple said.

Their meeting almost two years ago began what has turned into a mentorship between Holtzapple and Le and the students in the Alternative Energy Program, who have worked to turn food waste from their high school cafeteria into gasoline.

"He is a great mentor for me, and for my students," Le said. "For my students, I could not find a better mentor. We call him and he has time to answer questions for my students. A lot of times university professors are not very readily accessible, but he is."

The amount of gasoline the students made was minimal, but that did not temper the enthusiasm of those involved with the project. The students were proud of their achievement, even asking members of the crowd if they would like to smell it, to assure them that it was gasoline.

"I was very excited," said Glenda Reyes who is one of the students involved in the project. "I started jumping around."

The presentation given by the students didn't just focus on the successful outcomes, it also brought to light some of the failures and obstacles involved. From condensers not getting cold enough to calcium acetate being too fine, there was plenty of trial and error involved. But with perseverance and some advice from Holtzapple, the students were able to overcome.

"We had some problems, and we used him as a reference," said Steven Benitez. "Failure is always there and it gets you down, but you always know you have to get up and try more experiments. The hardships were worth it in the end."

Holtzapple's MixAlco process is just one of the projects the students in Le's class are working on. They also presented their work in rocketry, propulsion and wind turbines. Many of the members of the MixAlco project are also involved in the other areas.

In fact, one of their goals is to use the gasoline from the MixAlco project in the rockets used in the propulsion project, which is a step toward Le's dream of having a student rocket orbit the earth.

Having taken the first step of converting waste to gasoline, Le's students have set themselves up to continue to move forward. They have also helped prove that it is possible to obtain gasoline from sources other than oil.

"If high school students can turn waste material into gasoline, why can't adults do it?" Holtzapple asked.

Dr. Mark Holtzapple at the Booker T. Washington High School for Engineering Professions [Video]

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