Biofuels Week at Knox: Chemistry Students Create and Analyze Renewable Fuels

Knox students got a taste of how the real world of chemistry works when they collaborated during “Biofuels Week” to create a variety of biofuels from commercial vegetable oils and analyze the biofuels through the use of gas chromatography (GC).

The project involved students from Knox’s chemistry curriculum: beginning students in General Chemistry, intermediate students in Organic Chemistry, and upper-level students in Physical Chemistry.

“Chemists work in teams, and different people in teams have different expertise,” said Diana Cermak, professor of chemistry. “We’re not all experts in everything.”

For Biofuels Week, General Chemistry students teamed up with Organic Chemistry students to conduct chemical reactions to create a biofuel and its individual components and used gas chromatography to test the biofuel to identify its components. Physical Chemistry students then performed combustion tests on the biofuel samples to determine their efficiency as fuels.

Working on the biofuels project can help chemistry students explore a potential career path, Cermak said.

“Biofuels are very timely,” she noted. “Especially when gas prices get high, we start hearing about alternative fuels, green chemistry, and being more green and environmentally friendly. Biofuels produced from vegetable oils are one of those green alternatives.”

Some Knox chemistry majors have experienced Biofuels Week more than once, which has provided them with additional insight. “Seeing it multiple times during your time at Knox, in different ways, and understanding the chemistry that’s going on as it builds along the way, is kind of a cool idea,” Cermak said.

Students agree with Cermak’s remarks. Thy Le ’23 said when she experienced Biofuels Week for the first time a couple of years ago as a first-year student, it was eye-opening. “It prepared me mentally for the knowledge and the lab techniques that I was going to learn in the Organic Chemistry lab.”

For the second Biofuels Week during the fall 2021 Term, she was a teaching assistant for Organic Chemistry and a student in Physical Chemistry. “This lab teaches me how to work as a team member and how to communicate effectively, which is important for my career as a research scientist,” she added. “The students have a chance to learn not only technical skills but also interpersonal skills.”

Ngoc (Jade) Nguyen ’23 made similar observations, saying that she has benefited by going through Biofuels Week twice. The second time, “with more knowledge and lab experience, I understand more clearly what I am doing in the lab,” she said. “I am able to see every stage of the process, from doing the reactions to examining its combustion. It gives me a big picture of a chemistry lab, which shapes how I think about chemistry research.”

Students Laurelee Boon ’23 and Janelle Athans ’22 played instrumental roles in getting the project ready for other students and assisting them with the lab work, Cermak said. They will help her write an article for journal publication.

“I think my experiences in all of my labs leading up to Biofuels Week helped prepare me for this. Because we were working with general, organic, and physical chemistry, there were concepts that I learned as a first-year that came back up that week,” Athans said. “I loved Biofuels Week. It was fun seeing students engaging and learning from something I worked hard on to put together.”

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