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Synthesis of Biodiesel in a High School Lab

Faculty Supervisor:
Gary Histand
Year of Project Completion:
Ricky Snyder


With the growing effects of gasoline prices, the need for an alternative fuel source is quite obvious. As gas prices continue to be on the rise in upwards of over three dollars per gallon, alternative fuel sources are becoming increasingly popular in today’s society. In the year 2000, there were about eight million vehicles around the world that ran on alternative fuels, indicating the increasing popularity of alternative fuels (Alternative fuels). Biodiesel requires no modifications to regular diesel engines in order to work (Filz). In 2001, the first two public filling stations offering biodiesel were opened in San Francisco, CA, and Sparks, NV (Filz). The importance of learning about alternative fuel sources is useful knowledge in today’s society. By having the students conduct the synthesis of biodiesel in a high school lab setting, hopefully the awareness will increase. Biodiesel uses the process of transesterification of an oil. An alcohol and a catalyst are added to the oil and converts the esters to those of the corresponding alcohol. The alcohol becomes deprotonated by the base, which in turn makes it a better nucleophile. The nucleophile then attacks the carbon-oxygen double bond and creates a pair of electrons on the oxygen that was originally double bonded to the carbon. The alcohol becomes attached to the carbon. The electrons come back to the carbon and the glycol gets kicked off, which in turn forms the ester. The alcohols attack the other two carbon-oxygen double bonds and the same process occurs, with three ethyl esters being formed and the glycerol getting kicked off and creating a by-product each time (biodiesel production). There are many techniques for creating biodiesel, but most, if not all, of the ones that have been discussed were meant to produce a large quantity of biodiesel. With budget concerns, as well as space and storage concerns, most of these methods were not feasible. The goal in doing this research project was to find a way to teach kids why finding an alternative fuel source is so important, as well as teaching some other basic chemistry methodology, such as calculating density and specific heat.

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About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.