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Biomass - Creating Bio-Diesel

Matthew A. Brown, Raymond I. Quintana, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

This detailed chemistry lesson from the U.S. Department of Energy focuses on transforming vegetable oil into biodiesel through a process of transesterification. The process described offers a good model for many chemical reaction processes that are used to produce a viable product.

Activity takes about 5 class/lab periods. Additional materials are necessary.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

Energy Literacy

This Activity builds on the following concepts of Energy Literacy.

Click a topic below for supporting information, teaching ideas, and sample activities.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
C) Collecting information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:D) Technology
Other materials addressing:
D) Technology.
3. Skills for Understanding and Addressing Environmental Issues:3.1 Skills for Analyzing and Investigating Environmental Issues:C) Identifying and evaluation alternative solutions and courses of action
Other materials addressing:
C) Identifying and evaluation alternative solutions and courses of action.

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • An undergraduate Chemistry background should be sufficient for the teacher to proceed with leading this experience.
  • Teachers with less Chemistry experience could lead this experiment after first running through it themselves, and with careful attention to safety precautions.

About the Science

  • Well-presented and comprehensive lab. Students make a fuel that is quite safe to handle, and safety precautions are thoroughly addressed.
  • Students are given a list of vocab words and a background on biodiesel history, potential benefits, and current global usage facts as it pertains to passenger cars.
  • Introduces advanced chemistry topics, such as esterification, and basic topics, such as titration, and applies them to making an actual fuel.
  • Biofuels do have environmental impacts, including the release of formaldehyde other aldehydes into the environment when produced and burned. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Issues_relating_to_biofuels#Pollution
  • Biofuels can have drawbacks in terms of the energy it takes to produce them. This science is emerging, so educators should find current information about this aspect, if needed.
  • This project was written by two DOE ACTS Fellows under the direction of scientists and education programs staff at NREL.
  • Comments from expert scientist: Scientifically this resource is very sound and relevant, as 1 billion gallons of biodiesel per year are produced from soybean oil. The resource introduces the concept of biofuels/renewable fuels and 6 exercises are given to illustrate why biofuels are useful and being researched, as well as how to make biodiesel from vegetable oil.

About the Pedagogy

  • Students first practice the chemical process to create bio-diesel with new oil, then use a series of tests to determine the correct proportions to work with used oils, providing a well-scaffolded, authentic learning experience.
  • Well-written lab activity with cross-curriculum connections to Tech Ed classes a good way to integrate learning about renewable energy into an existing chemistry curriculum.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Necessary materials may need to be ordered ahead of time.
  • Takes quite a bit of time and effort; in some cases it is a time-intensive activity.
  • Although the fuel is not dangerous, the idea of making a fuel in a school may not be well received.
  • Biodiesel bottles will need to be left for a week to separate.
Entered the Collection: January 2013 Last Reviewed: November 2016

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