Teen inventor and scientist explores biodiesel issues

by Nathan Warner
Contributing writer

Elk River inventor and scientist Josh Wolf may only be 16, but he’s already making waves in business, science, the environment and education circles. Whether you’re talking about his waste oil turned to biodiesel, his algae that produces many more times the amount of oil than normal algae does, or his gasoline made from plastic bags, Wolf’s name is on the lips of professors, researchers, businessmen and men and women leading social causes around the state and throughout the country.

Josh Wolf holds up a bottle to show the biodiesel (yellow liquid) and glycerin (dark liquid) produced from the oil he gleans from shocking his vats of algae. Photo by Nathan Warner

It all began a year ago with his idea to reuse waste oil from Elk River High School’s cafeteria to make biodiesel for school buses. “My science teacher, Mark Durand, supported my idea and helped get it off the ground,” Josh explains, “so I went to work and started collecting oil, turning it into biodiesel with household chemicals.”

The experiments worked so well that a waste oil processor is now on its way to Elk River High School that will take oil from the cafeteria, Leann Chin, and other Minnesota restaurants and transform it into biodiesel. Local bus company Vision Transportation wants to use his biodiesel in its school buses, but it needs to meet state and federal fuel standards before it is put in any commercial engines, and they’re still looking into regulations and permits required for production, storage and use of the oil. “It’s tiring to work through all the paperwork,” Josh says, “especially when what I want to be doing is the science, but I know it will be worth it in the end.”

The funds he hopes to generate from the sale of biodiesel will go to securing a full patent for his algae biodiesel project, with enough left over to start up a company. His algae biodiesel process, referred to as “Shocking Lipid Production” in his science fair presentation, is truly innovative, as he uses small electrical shocks to stimulate vats of algae in an outdoor garage to produce nearly eight times the amount of oil produced by nature.

“I got the idea in Mr. Niziolek’s biology class,” Wolf says, “when he was talking about plant protein functions and I wondered if I could artificially stimulate the natural process with electrical current.”

Still two years from graduating high school, Wolf is competing with universities and pharmaceutical companies around the world, including a team in France and one in Myanmar, to crack the cost issue with algae fuel production. Wolf believes he’s done just that and is well on his way to proving it.

Through presenting at science fairs and exhibits around the country, Wolf garnered enough attention that KARE 11 TV news took notice and ran a piece about him earlier this year. The video went national on CNN and the response was overwhelming.

“Almost immediately, I had over 30 emails in my inbox from people and companies all over the world, despite the fact I don’t give my email address out,” he smiled. “I even had someone offering me land to use in Florida as a site to build algae ponds.”

The most impressive result of the interview to him was an invitation from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering to use their labs for his research into making gasoline substitutes from discarded plastic shopping bags.

“There’s a significant fuel source available in discarded plastics,” Wolf says, adding that he thinks it makes sense to tap them as a resource because they are costly to recycle and are a persistent problem in the environment. “Just listen to the news and you’ll hear about plastics getting into our oceans and endangering sea life,” he says. “This idea would help remove plastics from the environment and make a usable fuel in the process.”

The inventions and solutions keep coming from this high school student, but just so you don’t get the impression Wolf’s interests are restricted to science, he will be leaving Minnesota this summer and travelling to Massachusetts for several months to study at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Yes, he sings, but not just any kind of serenade — Wolf is taking the opera workshop.

So what got him going on science, anyway? He says he first became interested in science when doctors discovered he had a brain tumor in the fifth grade and had surgery to remove it. “I just started asking the surgeon all kinds of questions about my tumor and about the human brain,” he recalls, “and the whole process made me very interested in biology and the science behind the world I saw around me. It made it all very personal.”

This personal drive has given him a desire to share the knowledge and the passion he has with others.

When people ask him what he plans to do with the capital he’ll make from his ideas, he tells them that he hopes to bring science education to disadvantaged youth and impoverished communities. He’s already set this desire in motion.

Earlier this year, Wolf turned his sights on science education in inner cities through the involvement of his church with the D.I.V.I.N.E. (Developing Interests Vital In Nurturing Education) Institute in St. Paul, run by founder and director, Aretta Johnson. Currently, Josh is filing for a grant from the Captain Planet Foundation to build a green roof on the D.I.V.I.N.E. Institute’s building in St. Paul.

“A green roof partially or completely covers a building’s roof with vegetation,” Josh explains. “Its benefits to the city environment include reducing storm water runoff, reducing heating and cooling extremes, mitigating the heat island effect, filtering pollutants and carbon dioxide out of the air, and filtering heavy metals out of rainwater.” The real benefit for him is to get inner city youth involved in science. “I’d like to bring together biology, engineering, environmentalism, robotics and other science elements into the roof project to help get youth interested in science.”

Those are big plans for someone still two years from graduating high school, but Wolf’s dreams and his passion are relentless. After getting his diploma, he’s considering going to the University of Minnesota or Stanford, but he’s leaving plenty of room for options, as he keeps drawing interest to his ideas and projects from universities and research groups throughout the country and around the world.

“It’s exciting,” he smiles, “and I’m excited.”

For more information or to donate to his project go to www.indiegogo.com/AlgaeFuel.