(88e) Production of Biodiesel From Algae: An Experiment-Based Course for Introducing Students to Research Methods

West, K. N. - Presenter, University of South Alabama
Leavesley, S. J. - Presenter, University of South Alabama

Graduate coursework in chemical engineering is typically focused on high level, theoretical treatment of the core disciplines or special topics. While both of these areas are necessary, these courses are usually theoretical and do not expose students to hands-on experimental work that many of them will be asked to perform for the research component of their degree. In addition, related topics such as a literature search for experimental methods and analysis of experimental data are often not covered in a formal manner. Even students that work on computational research projects would strongly benefit from exposure to experimental research methods. We have implemented an experiment-based special topics course that is designed to provide masters students with a strong foundation for experimental work and aid them in performing quality research.

Like many masters programs throughout the country, the graduate program in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the University of South Alabama has three core components: completion of required course work (5 graduate chemical engineering core courses), demonstration of a mastery of the fundamental chemical engineering disciplines (a qualifying exam), and the successful defense of a thesis based on original research. Though this process is theoretically rigorous, the only place for developing competencies in experimental work is in the research component, and if a student's work is computational, this component is completely absent.

To provide this experience, we created an experimental-based course for first-year graduate students focusing on production of biodiesel from algae, an opened ended challenge that allowed them to focus on specific experimental research aspects. The class was divided into three groups corresponding to the three essential operations required for the process: (1) growth of the algae (bioreactor design and testing), (2) harvesting the algae and extraction of the triacylglycerols, and (3) transesterification of the triacylglycerols with methanol to produce biodiesel (fatty acid methyl esters) and glycerol. This created the opportunity for student teams to be exposed to three separate facets of experimental research: biological reactors, separations technologies, and reactor design and kinetics.

Students in this course were initially charged with performing a literature search on their particular topic, including fundamental background information, safety concerns and basic experimental details. Student teams summarized their work in bi-weekly oral presentations to the class. After students had demonstrated sufficient understanding of the process and potential solutions, they were required to develop a detailed research plan outlining their proposed experiments, timeline, and the information they expected to collect. After their research plan was approved, they were allowed to begin experiments.

The algae growth team designed a phyto-bio-reactor and used the reactor to measure algae growth kinetics and to generate a sufficient mass of dried algae needed to test lipid extraction processes. Independent parameters, such a light intensity, CO2/air feed ratio, and temperature were varied. The extraction team measured the lipid content of algae samples using Soxhlet extraction to determine if chemical extraction alone was sufficient to remove the triacylglycerols from the biological matrix. The reaction group examined the transesterification reaction kinetics with specific attention paid to the effects of temperature, catalyst type, and alcohol concentration. Additionally, each group was also given the task of performing either modeling or scale-up calculations based on their experimental data.

The final product from the class was the production of technical reports detailing the experimental process ? from initial planning to final experimental results ? along with final oral presentations by each team. We present the results from this class from an instructional perspective on how effectively the students were able to take on a foreign subject, internalize the background information, develop and execute a research plan, and conduct experiments that can lead to publication of quality experimental data. Student work from the course will be presented as well as modifications to the instructional process that we plan to implement in future courses and suggestions for other institutions interested in offering such a course.