Teen explores biodiesel ideas

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by Nathan Warner

Contributing writer

At 16 years of age Josh Wolf is still only a sophomore at Elk River High School, yet he’ll be presenting his innovative biodiesel projects at the Elk River Business and Energy Expo this Sunday.

Josh Wolf with some of his recent awards for a science fair project that has generated interest not only at science fairs but business and industry circles looking for less costly and environmentally friendly fuels.

Wolf is no stranger to presenting what he’s working on.  He’s shared his research in many high school classes and participated in numerous science fairs. He’s also part of a robotics team that has traveled as far away as Istanbul, Turkey for the 2010 European Robotics Championship in Turkey.

Just this February, Josh presented one of his many projects on enhanced biodiesel production from algae at the Central Minnesota Regional Science Fair held in St. Cloud.  He walked away with an environmental engineering award, a $500 scholarship from St. Cloud State University, and a $50 microbiology scholarship.

He has discovered a way to apply electricity to algae in a way that makes fuel oil.

This last weekend, Josh presented the same project at the 75th Minnesota State Science and Engineering Fair in Bloomington.  He won first place in the high school category with the 3M Innovation Award, the Gold Grand Award, and many others for his presentation called “Shocking Lipid Production,” which documented his biodiesel conversion from algae.

Biology teacher Mike Niziolek and physical science teacher Mark Durand have been encouraging and motivating factors in his life, too.

He also presented in more relaxed settings like Phil Johnson’s biology classes at Elk River High School.

“I got a pretty good reception,” he said. “No one was shooting spitballs. Plus a lot of the guys drive diesel trucks so they were pretty interested.”

Wolf has also presented at a previous Energy Expo. The reaction to his work was “this is pretty cool.”

Wolf wants to get past that someday, and partner with corporations that could invest in expanding upon what he has discovered.

The high school teenager says Elk River’s status as an Energy City has helped him by providing a nice backdrop of support from the community for his projects.

“It really fostered an atmosphere of encouragement for innovation and a real sense that we’re in this together,” he says, “because people are thinking about what energy means and how we can create it in a safer, more efficient manner.”

He said he feels that the combination of the Business Expo and the Energy Expo this year is a good thing.

“Hopefully people will see the connection between business and energy and get interested in how to help stimulate businesses with new energy technologies that will reduce their energy costs.”

With the steadily increasing price of energy throughout the world, local businesses such as Vision Transportation are already taking an interest in Josh’s research.  Many see his project as a tiny spark of innovation that may have potential to alleviate at least some of the energy burdens affecting everyone.