Interview WIth The Teacher Behind The Algae-Powered VW VanS

Since everyone has been so enthusiastic about the Algae-Veggie Van I thought I'd follow up with some bits that didn't make it into the original feature article, specifically a Q&A I did with teacher David Levine, who originally came up with the idea to do this with project his students. He's one of the incredibly committed and intelligent teachers that I've met in the Chicago area who decided to postpone going out into the corporate world (where they'd clearly be successful) and instead make a measurable impact on society through the Teach For America program.

Jalopnik: Where did you get this idea? David Levine: I got the idea for the project from my brother's work and from readings being done in the field. My brother's undergraduate thesis work is in the area of using algae to treat wastewater, and in so doing, make oil. We modified that a bit to the current project.

J: What are the steps needed to produce this biofuel?
D: Step 1: Culture algae in varying media to optimize its growth
Step 2: Design & build photobioreactors (the large tank-like structures that the algae grow in)
Step 3: After sufficient growth, harvest algae
Step 4: Extract algae oil
Step 5: Chemically modify oil into biodiesel (transesterification)

J: How did the students react to the project?
DL: Student reactions were varied, but almost all positive. This was an incredibly authentic learning piece for them that truly affects their day-to-day life. As a result, engagement was high, completion of the project and report was above average, and students continually remarked that what they were learning and doing mattered. Ciera Rice, one of my students, showed up in a green shirt, green pants, green jacket, green hair tie, and green stickers on her cheeks.

J: How big was the grant you got from BP?
DL: The A+ For Energy grant was for $10,000. The grant has covered most major expenses. Incidental costs have been covered by me. There's no doubt, however, that the grant has morphed my classroom. You walk in and the equipment resembles that available in the suburbs.

J: What was your biggest surprise with the project?
I was most surprised by the ease with which the students took to a green mindset. Discussions about a carbon footprint or about reducing one's hours behind the wheel would have been taboo a few months ago. Now they're something about which my students feel empowered and ready to act on... even if they still make fun of me for riding my bike to school.

J: What were the biggest challenges?
DL: Harvesting and extraction. Once perfected for industry, the harvesting process will probably require a continuous flow centrifuge to concentrate the algae. Even the greenest algae you saw in my room is still about 99% water. Concentrating the algae is key to a successful extraction and yield (because water can wreak havoc on the chemical reaction, depending on your extraction method). The extraction procedure in itself still requires fine-tuning for an industrial scale process. This project certainly did not solve those issues, but it did experiment with one wet extraction procedure that has not yet been published.

J: How has this impacted your students?
D: I've touched on the impact a bit already above, but I also think that this project has given them the opportunity to enter in to and engage in the green movement like few other high schoolers do. I firmly believe that the green movement will be successful at attacking eco-equity issues through technological innovation, and my kids now have a leg up in that race. I'm looking forward to seeing them come back from college armed with new ideas and skills that will revitalize our community.

J: You seem tired and friends have told me you've not been getting much sleep...
DL: I sleep about 4 hours every night during the week. So, that's about 4 hours a day of lost sleep, a staggering sleep debt that's probably keeping me from properly expressing myself right now.

I've spoken with David since the interview and I can tell you that the school was excited to hear about the positive responses you all posted in the comments to the original post. I'm also happy to report it seems like he's actually slept a little.

(Ed Note: As a matter of full disclosure, my fiancee is in the Teach For America program so I probably have some bias towards it.)