4-Hers make simple biofuel in science demonstration

10/8/2009 - By: Jim Sloan

Five 4-Hers from Reno and Carson City joined thousands of other youths around the country Wednesday to conduct an experiment in biofuels.

With University of Nevada officials – including Regent William Cobb, Vice Provost William Cathey, and Deans Karen Hinton, Ron Pardini and Bill Sparkman – looking on, the five teens demonstrated the “Biofuels Blast” experiment using sugar syrup, warm water and yeast. The demonstration took place in the rotunda at the university’s Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center.

The experiment, repeated by 4-Hers in clubs and public demonstrations throughout Nevada and the United States Wednesday, was designed to teach youth how cellulose and sugars in plants – such as corn, switchgrass, sorghum and algae – can be converted into fuel and how alternative energies can be used in their own communities.

The National Youth Science Day is part of the 4-H organization’s goal to engage 1 million new young people in science, engineering and technology programs by the year 2013. The One Million New Scientists, One Million New Ideas campaign seeks to battle a national shortage of youth pursuing science college majors and careers. This year more than 5 million youth nationally have taken part in 4H science, engineering and technology programs.

And shortly after their experiment successfully showed how yeast can break down simple sugars to create gas but has a harder time breaking down plant material, some of the 4-Hers at Wednesday’s demonstration sounded ready to get started on that science career.

“I’m glad I got a chance to do this,” said Kayla Neilson, 16, a junior at Spanish Springs. Neilson, in fact, said she plans to pursue a career in mining engineering.

“Engaging youth early in scientific exploration has been shown to spark a lasting interest in the sciences,” said University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Dean Karen Hinton, who hosted the event Wednesday. “Science can often seem intimidating to young people, but 4-H National Youth Science Day makes science fun, real and accessible.

Pardini, who is also the associate director of the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station, congratulated the 4-Hers after their demonstration.

“If you enjoy this, you should consider going into organic chemistry,” Pardini told the group. “What you did here today is what organic chemistry is all about.”

4-Her Tyler Roll, 17, who attends Carson High, asked if UNR has a tough organic chemistry program.

“It’s rigorous. It’s hard,” Pardini admitted. “But it’s like anything; you get out of it what you put into it.”

Roll and Neilson were joined by 4-Hers Robert Winslow, 14, of Reno; Anna Baumann, 15, of North Valleys High; and Jacob Roll, 14, of Carson High.

The 4-Hers worked with Kevin Schmidt, a graduate student in chemical engineering who is researching how to convert woody biomass in simple sugars that can be made into ethanol.

That’s one of several areas of biofuel research being explored by university faculty and students.

Schmidt’s mentor, Dr. Victor Vasquez, and his colleague, Charles Coronella, are also researching how to convert biomass into fuel. Their work is part of a $4.6 million study by the nonprofit HUGas Technology Institute. The UNR associate professors have experimented with converting wood and agricultural residue such as corn stalks and leaves, rice straw and switchgrass to fuel. Researchers from the Desert Research Institute and the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station are also researching various aspects of biofuel in Nevada. They hope one day to have a small processing plant built in Nevada to demonstrate how biomass can be converted to useful products.

But Vasquez said it would also be an important breakthrough to get young people excited about science.

“It is important for us to show these youth how cool it is to develop these things,” Vasquez said. “The idea that we need to be more responsible with our environment is directly related to the use of energy.


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