It was when the oil light came on that I started to run through the appropriate next steps in my head...and realized that there aren't any appropriate next steps when warning lights start going off in a 1982 VW Vanagon camper. Particularly one converted to run on a mixture of vegetable oil and algae biodiesel grown and refined by a group of Chicago high school students. As the Sears Tower, our goal, loomed in the distance, a question loomed in my mind: Was our shared belief in the future of petroleum alternatives and, more importantly, in the fuel processing abilities of public school students and their teachers, strong enough to convince us to push further into the knot of congestion forming around the city?
David Levine, a second-year teacher placed in Chicago through the Teach For America program, faced a common problem: how to get students to take the same interest in their studies as in Grand Theft Auto IV. His school, the Al Raby School for Community and Environment, serves populations from the predominately African American neighborhoods on Chicago's West Side, a place where the median income is more than 40% lower than the city as a whole. How could he motivate his students to invest their time and interest in the scientific process?
Levine settled on one of the biggest issues facing this generation of students: the impact, both environmental and political, of our dependence on foreign sources of fuel. According to the UN Human Development Reports, the US emits 21% of the world's carbon dioxide despite having only 4.6% of the world's population. We're currently engaged in our second war in the oil-rich Middle East. Using these issues as a starting point, Levine sought a project that would address the problems while at the same time providing an educational and compelling experience for his students. Thus the Algae Biodiesel Van was born.
The goal was to create enough biodiesel from algae, grown and processed in the classroom, to power a vehicle from the school to Chicago's Sears Tower and back, an approximately 20-mile round trip. Because algae sucks carbon out of the atmosphere, it is relatively carbon neutral to produce and, unlike corn or soybeans, isn't a food crop. But how do you turn single-celled plants into viable fuel within the confines of a classroom?
You can't miss the algae-processing unit that occupies the corner of Levine's science classroom. Giant bags filled with a specific strain of fuel-producing algae are stacked on top of one another, connected by a series of tubes that pump the bright green organic slime around a stack of fluorescent lamps to encourage photosynthesis. This would actually make a great lighting fixture for a trendy LA sushi place.
Students have been working with Levine to cultivate the algae in their classroom and refine it down to fuel. Almost all the work was done on-site, though at one point the solution had to be taken to a centrifuge at the University of Illinois Chicago for final separation, an event which afforded students a chance to see a fully operational lab.
After spending a large portion of their junior year working through the process, the students were able to create what they hoped was enough fuel to power a vehicle the full distance: one gallon. Right before the trip one of the students showed off their beaker of algaediesel, which I can attest smells much better than petrodiesel. Though that's not saying much.
Working with a small grant from BP America's A+ For Energy program, there wasn't much room in the budget for buying a car specifically for the purposes of the test. Thankfully, the fuel is of such high quality that, when mixed with vegetable oil, it can run on most unmodified diesel engines. Here's where the 1982 Vanagon Diesel Westfalia Camper comes into the picture.
Faded orange with a white camper top, this particular Vanagon was loaned to the class for this experiment by a trusting friend of Levine's family. Still used for camping, the small fridge inside the van features remnants from previous outings, plus a bed, kitchen and radio; it's actually a small home they're running on their fuel, made all the more so due to the absence of seat belts.
The Fantastic Voyage
After draining off the low-sulfur petrodiesel in the tank, a large crowd of students, faculty and media collected around the van to see if it would actually start. There was a sense of hopeful expectation as Levine slowly poured a gallon of his student's labors into the VW. After taping the plastic back over the fuel tank (they had trouble getting the cap back on), Levine lodged himself in the driver's seat, while his fellow science teachers piled in to provide moral support and, should the van break down, actual physical support. Engaging the clutch, a few held their breath has he turned the key. Put, Put, Put, Put, Put. The familiar register of a diesel engine filled the air, overtaken immediately by the applause of students.
Levine drove the van around the block and returned victoriously to this group of excited students suddenly filled with that sense of accomplishment that comes from a job well done. But one more test remained. Had they made enough good fuel to get the van to the Sears Tower and back? In traffic?
The principal decreed that students couldn't ride in the van since it lacked safety belts and, really, anything resembling safety equipment. Besides, limiting weight was a primary concern: The range calculations for a single gallon of fuel were fairly rough. The driving would be handled by James, David's father and a veteran of the One Lap of America (he raced a Porsche 911 RS). Navigation was up to Evan, another science teacher involved in the program. I had the final seat on the back couch where I would serve as the historian and archivist. After a slight top-off with the remaining fuel mixture and a check of the systems (assuring the plastic was completely taped over where the gas cap should go) we set off for the Sears Tower.
Driving into downtown Chicago, especially on a Friday afternoon, requires an ability to improvise. Construction, traffic and frequent fender benders all lead to the sorts of complex traffic patterns that we don't currently have the processing power to comprehend. Thankfully, the Tower is the tallest building in the city and, therefore, was easy to spot out the van's windows.
Given our limited resources, we decided to tack east using a narrow road that runs predominately underneath the elevated train tracks. Though not the most direct route, we hoped to avoid congestion and keep track of our chase car, piloted by students and running on good ol' 89 octane. The first few minutes out everything was going well. There was no foul smell or smoke and the engine was running smooth for a van older than the students who fueled it.
That's when the oil light blinked at us. Could the fuel be interfering with the engine's oil pressure or temperature? Were we just unlucky enough to be having an unrelated problem while winding our way towards the city's most recognizable piece of architecture? James gets on the phone with David and they quickly decide that it's unrelated and not a concern.
Pushing forward, we keep spotting the peaks of the Tower between the other building that ring the outer loop. As we get closer to the city we start getting looks from the commodity traders, receptionists, service employees and others who are hoping to escape the city for the weekend. Even without the knowledge we're running on algae, the van is hard to miss.
The oil light still illuminated, we weave our way past cabs and around buses until we see the sign for the Tower's parking garage. We've made it... halfway at least. Given the beefed up security downtown, I'm hoping we don't get stuck and have to explain why we parked this funny-smelling van right next to the building's foundation.
James parked the van down the street from the amazing structure, thus lowering the risk of clogging traffic any further and providing a better location for photos. After a quick picture with two of the students, we raced back across town to the school. Worried about fuel levels, there wasn't time to dawdle. We cut south before going west, hoping to avoid the worst traffic. Our gambit worked, and we arrived at the school a few minutes earlier than planned. So early, in fact, that there was no one around to celebrate our victory over the forces of fuel consumption. Where the hell were the students?
It turns out they were inside munching on donated snacks and enthusiastically sharing their research and work on environmental projects they designed as part of the "Green Fair" planned around the launch of the Algae Car. Inspired by the fuel project, more students than usual actually completed their assignments. One of the coaches at the school remarked that in high school he just did his assignments to do them, but that Levine's kids "were actually doing the work because they cared and believed in it." Talking with some of the students and teachers, it's clear that this may be the day's biggest victory.
Victory And Hope
It's hard to overestimate either the technical or educational achievement of this project. While this particular journey back-and-forth from the school to downtown isn't going to fundamentally change our nation's energy policy, it did impact the very people who will be involved in finding solutions in the future. The next night I joined a tired but proud Levine for dinner. In addition to the joy he felt from successfully completing the project, he also had great news about his student's educational progress.
The students in his classes dramatically improved their scores on the scientific portion of the ACT compared with the previous year. It isn't easy to quantify the amount that this specific project contributed to the leap in test scores, but it would be hard to deny the impact after seeing his excited students cheer on their project car.
Having driven another special diesel prototype, the Audi R8 V12 TDI LeMans, I can't say that the Vanagon is quite as menacing. And instead of being flanked by black SUVs driven by off-duty cops, we were followed by an old silver Camry driven by a couple of students. But if I had to choose which experience I thought was more important, more impressive and more downright awesome I'd have to go with the Algae Car. With a significantly smaller budget, a group of determined students and their dedicated teachers proved our options for the future are only limited by our own imagination.