Monday, May 10, 2010

Making ethanol in the kitchen?

Now I'm not advocating that you put the end product of this experiment in your car. In fact, I strongly recommend against it....what you'll end up with is no where near pure enough or concentrated enough to run in your engines. But what this fun experiment is sure to do is get your kids' excitement level all fueled up!

So here's the scoop: biofuels and green energy are everywhere these days....and for good reason! First, biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel are renewable. Secondly, the can be made and processed right here in the U.S., creating U.S. jobs. And thirdly, they are cleaner for the environment.  But did you know biofuels like ethanol are not new technology to the automobile industry? Henry Ford developed the first flex-fuel vehicle. You may have heard of it before: it was the Model T.

Curious about how ethanol is made? Here's a short (less than 4 minutes) video explaining the process.
GM also has a cool little interactive graphic on the process, too.

But back to the task at hand: did you know your students can make their own ethanol using common household kitchen items? We've done this activity with numerous groups on our Wooster campus and with schools across the state. We like using General Motors' No Fossils in this Fuel lesson plan as a basis. It is a free download and comes with both a teacher and student guide, links to additional resources, history of ethanol and lots of other cool information on the history of ethanol and the automobile industry.

So here's what you need:
  • 1 package of yeast
  • Water
  • Corn syrup
  • Empty, cleaned, label-free 2-liter plastic bottles
  • Ballon (pre-stretched works best)
  • Funnel measuring spoons and cups
  • Sink or bucket
  • Rubber gloves

Here's what you do:
  1. Add 2 cups warm water and package of yeast to empty bottle using funnel.
  2. Swish to mix ingredients and record observations.
  3. Using the funnel again, add 1/4 cup of corn syrup and mix again.
  4. Stretch the deflated balloon over the top of the bottle and place the bottle in a sink or a bucket. (Now we've never had any problems with leaks or explosions when we've just placed the bottles on a countertop, but the instructions say a sink or bucket....and it's always a good idea to follow instructiosn precisely when conducting an experiment.)
  5. Observe and record your observations.
  6. Check after 1 hour. Observe and record observations again.
  7. Repeat observations and recordings after 2 hours.
  8. Repeat observations and recordings after 24 hours.
  9. It will take 24-48 hours for the experiment to complete. When you are finished, pour the contents down the sink using rubber gloves.

So what happens? Simple fermentation. The corn syrup (representing the starch from the corn that is primarily used in the United States to make ethanol) is broken down into ethanol and carbon dioxide (that's what it filling and inflating the balloon). You end up with a mix of about 13 percent ethanol.

So try this at home and have fun with it...and let us know what you think!

And one other cool fact? OARDC researchers are partnering on an Ohio Third Frontier grant to use Russian dandelions as a source of natural rubber and ethanol!
Learn more here.

 All Thingz Related Summer Fun

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