Elk River sophomore is an algae alchemist

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 16, 2012 - 5:56 PM

An Elk River High School sophomore is in Pittsburgh this week, presenting his long-studied findings on creating biodiesel fuel from microscopic plants.

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Elk River High sophomore Josh Wolf works out of a portable garage in his back yard. It was a Christmas gift from his family.

Photo: Maria Elena Baca, Star Tribune

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Elk River sophomore Josh Wolf has a lofty goal -- helping to solve the world's fuel crisis -- using a humble tool: algae.

In the portable garage that serves as a back-yard laboratory, he has discovered that the application of a very low-level electrical jolt causes algae to release oil. After a couple of days, he skims it out, adds a formula of plumbing cleaner and antifreeze, and presto, it's biodiesel fuel. The fruits of his labors could be traveling around Elk River on any given day in the diesel tanks of friends' pickup trucks.

The 16-year-old who sometimes talks over his parents' and friends' heads, but who struggles to balance his passion with his schoolwork, is just a guy who wants to help, he said.

"I just like solving problems," he said.

Creating diesel fuel from algae has been done elsewhere, usually by a process that uses mechanical presses to squeeze oil from dried algae. What's different about Wolf's work is that he uses live algae and a process that keeps the plants alive to produce fuel another day. He estimates that his solar-powered process costs about 3 cents per gallon of biodiesel, compared with about $25 by the dry-and-press method. The conversion does produce a byproduct, glycerine, which Wolf said he feeds back to the algae.

Last summer, he built a 700-gallon tank out of 2-by-4s and clear plastic. It produced about two gallons of fuel a day, he said, much more than the conventional system.

Wolf had to remove the car-sized tank from its spot on the city street because of safety concerns (he does understand why), but he still keeps a 30-gallon drum of algae water.

The concept grew out of an attempt by Wolf to use algae to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But he switched gears when he learned of efforts elsewhere to create biodiesel from algae.

He had ordered a vial of Bolivian algae, Botryococcus Braunii. This isn't the gloppy stuff that accumulates on Minnesota lakes and ponds in August. When Wolf holds up a pop bottle full of light-green liquid, the algae is visible in the form of tiny floating specks.

He worked on it all last summer. On an October night he greeted his parents' return from an evening out with a flaming biodiesel votive.

Widespread attention

The project already has garnered international attention. Wolf has given local and international demonstrations, as close as his own Elk River Energy Expo, and as far away as Pittsburgh, where he is today, presenting his findings at the International Science and Engineering Fair.

His name has been attached to various awards, too. In March, he was among seven finalists in the 2011 International Algae Competition. His rivals included 140 entries from 40 countries; many had corporate or university backing.

His mom, Kim, remains incredulous.

"And then there's Josh's little pool out in the street," she said, laughing.

Last week, Wolf and his parents spoke with a patent attorney. He's also looking for investors in the project he has funded so far from his allowance. He's also come to an agreement to provide Elk River school buses with biodiesel made from restaurants' leftover fryer oil, though he's still refining the process.

Is algae the answer?

Is it possible that someday we all could keep back-yard algae pools to grow fuel for our cars? He's working on it.

And work he does, as much as 40 hours a week, if he can. Combine that with speech team duties, church, family and choir, and that doesn't leave a lot of time for schoolwork. Wolf was asked to present at the International Sustainable World Energy Engineering Environment Project Olympiad (I-SWEEEP) in Houston earlier this month, but he passed so he could focus on school -- his parents' call.

His biology classes help him make important connections in his work, and his teacher, Mike Niziolek, has been willing to teach outside the textbook. But there's more to 10th grade than biology.

"I'm proficient in science, but not necessarily in other fields," Wolf admitted, adding that his grades have suffered as he's focused on his algae.

There's a balance to be found, said his dad, Darren, who is assistant principal at Rogers High School.

"He's a big thinker," he said. "We have to work really hard not to compromise that."

The founder of the algae competition, Robert Henrikson, said Josh Wolf is a name to remember.

"He's not the only one, but he's on to something there," he said. "I am really inspired by Josh and his creativity and his motivation to come up with a unique way to get biodiesel from algae. I really wish him the best and look forward to his contributions to the field. This guy is awesome."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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