Tribal schools create their own biodiesel to win energy challenge

By Louise LernerJuly 22, 2011

Last year, American Indian tribal colleges and high schools competed to build the best wind turbine; this year, their challenge was different, but still related to renewable energy—creating biodiesel fuel out of raw biomass.

The winners of the second annual Indian Education Renewable Energy Challenge are Oneida Nation High School (WI) in the high school division and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (NM) in the college division. The teams received their awards last week during a two-day visit to Argonne, where they toured the labs, spoke with Argonne scientists working on energy issues and built solar cells.

The competition, held by the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in conjunction with the U.S. Department of the Interior, challenges high school and college students to build complex renewable energy projects. The challenge is open to all tribal high schools and colleges under the auspices of the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development, and is intended to provide a hands-on experience for future tribal leaders in energy resource development. The teams submit proposals and ten finalists are chosen to receive funding to build their projects.

This year each team was required to submit a video showing their biodiesel fuel production process, a video of their generator in operation fueled by the biodiesel and powering some appliance and a 100-milliliter sample of the fuel itself.

The Oneida Nation High team decided to make their biodiesel out of waste vegetable oil donated by local businesses. Vegetable oil contains long chains of fatty acid molecules tied together with a glycerine molecule. To make biodiesel, the glycerine molecule has to be broken off—usually with a catalyst, such as lye—and replaced with a methanol molecule.

With help from science teachers, local plumbers and mechanics and storage space from local business, the Oneida Nation High team mixed the vegetable oil with lye and methanol to create their biodiesel. When they tested the fuel in a diesel generator, the team reported, it performed nearly as well as commercial diesel fuel.

Next, the team plans to continue refining the process and to create soap from the leftover glycerine.

The SIPI college team took a different route and grew their own algae, another source of biodiesel. With a fine crop of Chlorella vulgaris grown in “kiddie pools” full of wastewater from local facilities, they ran into difficulty extracting their algae harvest; it slipped through screens and fishnets but trickled too slowly through pillowcases. Silkscreen from the college's art department did the trick. The team dried the algae in the sun and chemically converted it into lipids ready for biodiesel processing. They also made a version of biodiesel from canola oil.

During the visit to Argonne, the winning teams spoke with summer interns working at Argonne as part of the Tribal Energy Internship program. The interns work directly with Argonne mentors on a wide range of technologies while analyzing their potential impacts and economic opportunities; this year students from the Navajo, St. Croix Chippewa and Confederated Salish and Kootena tribes are represented.

Several students spoke about the desire to bring renewable energy and scientific knowledge back to their tribes. According to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study, lands held by tribes could potentially produce half a trillion kilowatt-hours of wind power and 17.6 trillion kilowatt-hours of solar. This could offer both economic benefits and employment to American Indian communities.

More information about the challenge and internships are available at the Argonne Department of Educational Programs website.