Science - February 1, 2011

School students learn to make biofuel from waste

Take some used paper tissues out of the waste paper basket. Add water and enzymes to convert the cellulose in the paper into glucose. Next, add baking yeast to convert these sugars into bio-ethanol. Distill the resulting solution to get a high alcohol concentration. Lo and behold, you've made your own biofuel.

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This is an experiment designed by Wageningen UR and is currently being run in tens of secondary schools. It is part of a teaching module called 'Food or Fuel' for the elected subject Nature, Life and Technology (NLT) taught in 230 secondary schools.
'Two of our students developed the experiment', says Janneke van Seters of the Bioprocess Technology chair group. 'We provide only an instruction manual for the schools. The schools can carry out the test using equipment present within their premises or which they can easily get hold of, such as brewery equipment from brewers. Wageningen UR supplies the enzyme.'
The experiment takes place over a five-day period and students spend several hours in total on it. 'We've learned how it really works', is the opinion of many students. An evaluation shows that they like the module very much, reported Van Seters last month in a publication. She designs teaching materials on sustainable production of fine chemicals and biofuels in the B-Basic research programme.
It is notable that the university lets secondary school students be acquainted with 'second generation biofuels' in this tissue paper experiment, although biofuel extraction from cellulose is still being largely researched into. 'The principle is known', says Seters, 'but the conversion process now still costs more energy than it generates. Current research focuses mainly on finding more efficient process steps.'
Wageningen UR has written a total of seven teaching modules, each with its own experiments, for the secondary schools.  Areas covered by these modules include molecular gastronomy, algae breeding and meteorology in the city. Another three teaching modules are on the drawing board, says coordinator Jeroen Sijbers. 'Doing this creates brand awareness and customer allegiance for us.'

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