- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

NEW PRAGUE, Minn. (AP) -  Brian and Anna Prchal and Tyler Fromm are teenagers making and using biodiesel. They’re also part of a possible solution for a growing need for employees in agriculture.

There are 25,700 new jobs for management and business in agriculture and 14,600 new jobs in agriculture and science engineering each year, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis of job figures. The gap between expected job openings and agriculture and related fields graduates is roughly 1,000 each year.

For junior high and high school students, “4-H involvement could lead to college, university or even trade school and an ag-related job,” said Josh Rice, who runs the science of agriculture programming at University of Minnesota Extension. “Agricultural awareness is a very important piece of this. There are ag jobs out there and it’s not just production agriculture. It can be marketing, processing, distribution and even social science.”

Minnesota is the first state to start a 4-H Science of Agriculture Challenge, which is a team competition showing science and engineering understanding, The Free Press (https://bit.ly/1FZEx0j ) reported. The teams have three or four members between grades six and 12 who share a common interest. A coach guides them through the scientific or engineering process. The teams also meet with a mentor from the industry, who gives guidance and an inside view of an agricultural career.

Brian and Anna Prchal of Montgomery and their cousin Tyler Fromm of New Hope teamed up to work on biodiesel. Jodi Prchal, Brian and Anna’s mother and a fifth-grade teacher, is their coach.

Brian created biodiesel from used fryer oil at a local restaurant. He describes the process in detail on how to transform that oil into fuel.

“You can burn straight filtered vegetable oil in a diesel engine, but it gums up the engine,” Brian said.

After filtering it, the major step in the process was carefully combining the oil with methanol and potassium hydroxide, which separates the fatty acids from the glycerin, which settles to the bottom. The fatty acids bond with methanol to transform the molecules into biodiesel. That is followed by “washing” the biodiesel with water to cause even more separation, leaving a transparent light orange liquid.

Jodi Prchal says the critical moment came when they tried it in an engine. Brian had bought a single-cylinder, nine horsepower diesel engine and it ran smoothly on the biodiesel.

Brian’s goal, he said, is to be able to have a diesel truck and run it on his own biodiesel.

“I’ve always been really interested in renewable energy,” he said.

He made 1 liter of biodiesel for this project but wants a setup that will allow him to make 30 gallons at a time with less intervention.

“It would cost 70 cents a gallon if you do it right versus $4 per gallon of diesel, when diesel was high,” Brian said.

He tested the efficiency and the acidity of the biodiesel against diesel.

“Biodiesel is not as efficient as conventional diesel,” he said. “But the pollutants were far less. The pH didn’t go up a lot. Diesel has some sulfur in the exhaust, so biodiesel is better for the environment.”

Anna’s and Tyler’s projects branch off of Brian’s. Anna tested his biodiesel against kerosene and ethanol for pollutants and energy. She created a calorimeter by suspending a pop can with some water over burners of biodiesel, ethanol and kerosene. She judged pollutants by burning the fuels inside a cylinder with a coffee filter covering the top end.

“The kerosene had the most soot, I was in the basement and there was soot all over,” Anna said. “Ethanol had nothing and biodiesel had some spots. Kerosene had the highest temperatures, then ethanol and biodiesel. The better option would be ethanol than biodiesel.”

Tyler researched fuels and talked to professionals. After sharing the research with Brian and Anna, he tested the wear of engines when using regular diesel and biodiesel.

“The biodiesel was better for wear,” he said.

The three have all been around farms their whole lives and have been involved in 4-H, frequently competing at the Minnesota State Fair. The team has been working on the project since October. In June, they’ll give a presentation to a panel of judges. Questions from the judges will follow the presentations.

“That’s what highlights the deeper learning that’s taken place,” Rice said. “There has been a lot of time that the youth have been engaged in active learning.”

There are 14 teams competing for scholarships - $1,000 for each teammate for first, $750 for second and $500 for third.

The scholarships can be used at any accredited trade school, college or university, for any major because, Rice said, “Any college major that we talk about, we can make a connection to agriculture.”

Students are also eligible to participate each year from sixth grade to high school graduation, even if they have already won one or multiple scholarships.

After getting the feedback from the trial year, Rice said he hopes to more than double the number of teams next year.

“Over the next five years, we’re hoping for a national program,” Rice said. “Once other states offer the same program, there may be a national contest.”

But, at the basic level, the program may attract young people to science and engineering fields, deepen their understanding, allow them to take more advanced science classes in high school, and eventually lead to the qualified employees that agricultural businesses know they’re going to need.

“This could potentially change what agriculture looks like,” Rice said. “This can help students know they have the capability of being scientists and engineers.”

On Team Prchal-Fromm, that’s already understood.

Brian knows he’s going to double major in mechanical and agricultural engineering at college in the fall. His sister, in eighth grade, knows she wants to work with animals or the environment. And Tyler, also in eighth grade, wants to work for the Department of Natural Resources.

Brian joked, “That’s just because you want to fish and get paid for it.”

Tyler shrugged and said, “That would be great.”


Information from: The Free Press, https://www.mankatofreepress.com

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