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Running on Algae: To the Sears Tower and Back

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Teach for America’s David Levine wanted to give his students a first-hand experience that illustrated the energy crisis facing the United States. His class from Al Raby High School for Community and Environment on the West Side of Chicago is part of a generation facing the complications of a century of oil dependence.

Although Levine had his class investigate the problems — climate change, two wars in the Middle East, an economy tethered to petroleum — he also wanted to have them look at the solutions.

That’s how he came up with the idea to manufacture their own biofuel using algae the class cultivated in the classroom. The goal was to manufacture enough biodiesel to drive a 1982 Vanagon Diesel Westfalia Camper from the downtown high school to the Sears Tower and back.

Algae makes for an attractive alternative fuel because it removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (in other words, it negates the energy used to grow it in the first place) and it is not a food crop, like corn is. The class spent much of its junior year growing enough algae to refine one gallon of fuel. The gallon did indeed take the Camper from the West Side to the Sears Tower and back without a hitch.

Levine wanted to use the project to give his students an example of how they can contribute a solution for the country and the world rather than just hearing about the problems. In addition to this, however, he also saw a marked improvement in the science portion of their ACT test scores. How much this particular project had to do with those improvements is impossible to calculate, but Levine certainly deserves credit for taking a new approach to teaching about science and energy.

Oh, and there’s the fact that a bunch of high schoolers developed fuel from algae!

Sears Tower or Bust: My Algae-Powered Car Adventure (Jalopnik)

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