After school on Friday afternoons, 16-year-old Madeleine Gagne heads to a biochemistry lab at Ohio State University.
Her mom, Kendra McDonald-Gagne, drives the teen, who has yet to get her driver’s license.
An inconvenience for mom, maybe, but a weekly trip to Ohio State is better than the alternative. Madeleine had been growing algae in the basement.
“My mom wasn’t happy about that,” said Madeleine, who wrapped up her sophomore year at Dublin Coffman High School last week.
The basement work started as a science fair project in the seventh grade. The idea was to turn freshwater algae into a biofuel.
Madeleine had hung a grow light above aluminum pans filled with algae and used a hand crank to extract the oil, which was then heated on the kitchen stove.
She placed third locally and received honorable mention for the American Chemical Society, but the algae didn’t produce as much oil — the needed element for creating biofuel — as she expected.
For the eighth-grade science fair, she switched to seaweed, a type of algae. That led to a first-place ribbon at the local science fair. (She was disqualified at the regional level because she didn’t do her work in a lab.)
Madeleine wanted to continue her research but needed chemicals she couldn’t use at home.
She turned to her freshman chemistry teacher, Danielle Collins, who gave her access to the solvents she needed.
“She did it all on her own,” Collins said.
When Madeleine needed a larger lab, Collins suggested calling Ohio State. She’s been working there since February 2014.
The OSU lab is equipped with everything from beakers and chemicals to machinery such as a mass spectrometer, which allows her to measure atoms and molecules.
She hasn’t made a biodiesel directly from algae, but she’s getting closer.
“We haven’t gone straight from algae to the biodiesel, but we’ve gone from the algae to the components for the biodiesel and the components to the biodiesel,” she said.
This component is called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, which Madeleine has identified in the seaweed.
To get there, she runs a high-frequency sound wave over the seaweed to pop its cells. That makes the DHA rise to the top, where it can be collected.
In a separate process, she extracted DHA from codfish liver oil pills. They contain DHA because cod fish eat seaweed.
With the help of Angela Miller, an OSU chemist, Madeleine has taken the DHA from the pills and modified it so it can burn as a fuel.
“We’re taking a compound that doesn’t burn that’s found naturally, and we’re just doing a pretty simple chemical reaction to make it be able to burn,” Miller said.
So far, Madeleine has about 2 ounces of DHA, which isn’t enough to test on its own. She and Miller mixed it with diesel fuel for experiments.
Madeleine said that for the next phase of her research, she is switching back to freshwater algae.
She acknowledged balancing her OSU project, school work, friendships, piano lessons, Girl Scouts, the high-school quiz team and numerous science-related clubs can be a challenge.
“It’s a lot like living a double life.”
This summer, Madeleine said she will split her time between the lab, learning to drive, having sleepovers with her friends and Scout camp.
She said she will be in the lab two or three times a week this summer using same high-frequency sound waves to extract the DHA from freshwater algae.
“We’ve found DHA in the algae and then we got pure DHA and we got biodiesel from that,” Miller said. “Putting those together would be the ultimate goal to go straight from algae to biodiesel.”& amp; amp; lt; /p>
Many researchers around the world are working on the same concept.
First, an algae-based fuel would be more environmentally friendly than other alternative fuel sources.
Second, algae, like all plants, feeds off carbon dioxide. Theoretically, algae farms could be placed next to power plants in order to use CO2 waste as a sort of fertilizer.
That would make these sites closer to carbon-neutral. “There is no net CO2 change,” Madeleine said.
She said she wants to enter the work in the Google Science Fair and the Shell Energy Challenge.
Winning awards, however, isn’t her ultimate goal. She said sharing her research with others is more important.
“I love to do science and it was a chance to make the world better by doing science.”
Photo: Madeleine Gagne, who just finished her sophomore year at Dublin Coffman High School, has been working with a chemist at Ohio State University on a project to convert algae into biofuel. TOM DODGE | DISPATCH
View original article at: Biofuel science-fair project turns into mission for teen