With help from students, PM teacher's car runs on cooking oil - LancasterOnline: News

With help from students, PM teacher's car runs on cooking oil

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Posted: Sunday, July 11, 2010 9:14 pm | Updated: 2:17 pm, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

Penn Manor High School teacher Sean McKnight is about to have an easier commute to work.

Easier on the wallet, that is.

His new ride - it's actually a 1981 Volkswagen - was prepared by students to run on fuel made from used cooking oil supplied by the school's cafeteria and local eateries.

"What do teenagers concern themselves with?" said McKnight, a technology education teacher.

"Well, if they're boy teenagers, they're concerned with girls, and if they're girl teenagers, they're concerned with boys.

"But the next thing on the list is a car."

The project started nearly three years ago when the Technology Student Association, a nonprofit national organization devoted to teaching technology education to young people, challenged students to find a way to "fix the fuel crisis."

This summer, eight recent Penn Manor graduates met that challenge and entered their work into a national competition in Baltimore. McKnight purchased the diesel-engine car for the project, and his students had to get it in "running condition" by rebuilding the engine, doing bodywork and more.

"On a camping trip, we originally thought we wanted to build a submarine," said Henry Stewart, who is Goshen College-bound. "But we switched to building a fuel refinery."

Said McKnight: "We wanted to use cooking oil because it's the most economic. People were throwing it away; it was ending up in landfills.

"We wanted to take a negative product and make something positive."

Converting the cooking oil to fuel produced two byproducts - glycerin and contaminated water.

With the flammable glycerin, they formed "french fry-smelling" fire logs.

The contaminated water was filtered through rocks until it was purified.

"These kids have a wonderful foundation of book knowledge. They're so bright. But (hand) them a screw and they have some trouble," McKnight said.

Take student Corey Delmonto. He recites the melting temperatures of metals the way most kids his age retain Lady Gaga lyrics. But he's not a handyman, at least not yet. While welding his teacher's truck, he accidentally ignited it.

"Now, not only does he realize on paper what the melting temperatures are, he's brought that to life," McKnight said.

"There are some real applications here."

The students ultimately didn't place in the national competition (after making it through regional and state rounds). A small stumbling block, the builders said.

"We designed it. We tracked down the material, we pieced it all together," Stewart said. "We were the impetus for it from concept to fabrication."

The school will continue to use the car as an education tool in science and technology classes.

"I can tell the kids, 'I can let you drive for free,'" McKnight said. "That's going to get kids interested in biofuel."

Meanwhile, McKnight estimates he will save more than $4,500 per year using the fuel for his car and to heat his home.

That's fuel for thought.

dmartin@lnpnews.com

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