Biodiesel at the USC Wrigley Institute is now a science lesson for Boy Scouts
Members of a local Boy Scouts of America troop learned this summer how USC Dornsife scientists are making biofuel with used cooking oil from the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies facility on Santa Catalina Island. (Photo: Maurice Roper.)

Biodiesel at the USC Wrigley Institute is now a science lesson for Boy Scouts

A USC Dornsife chemist’s biodiesel project is an opportunity for Scout troops camping on California’s Santa Catalina Island to learn about sustainability. [5 min read]
ByEmily Gersema

Alexander Maertens has spent eight weeks camped on Santa Catalina Island.

He is no castaway. The junior in chemistry at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences has been an instructor this summer for Boy Scouts of America troops visiting the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, headquartered at USC Dornsife.

Maertens has taught nearly 300 Scouts from across California how he and Professor of Chemistry Travis Williams refine used cooking oil from the institute’s cafeteria and turn it into biodiesel. Repurposing the oil as a fuel prevents it from leaking into groundwater and eliminates the requirement to ship it back to the mainland. And, it reduces reliance on fossil fuels.

“I’m really drawn toward research that can help impact the environment in some way, something that will help people,” says Maertens, 19 and an Eagle Scout from the Los Angeles area. “The reason that we are doing this on this island is because there is a significant need for this kind of technology. Catalina is a protected area as a Channel Island, and we want to preserve that.”

Williams estimates that Maertens conducted demonstrations for an estimated 300 Scouts from across California, most of whom paddled their way to the institute from their island campsites in kayaks and canoes. The groups included girls, who this year were allowed into scouting for the first time in the organization’s history.

Waste not

Wearing a black “SC” ball cap and burgundy hooded sweatshirt, Maertens explained to scout troops how he purified the oil and grease. The Scouts were intrigued by the globe-like flask filled with spinning, purified oil.

He said sodium methoxide was the catalyst that helped convert the spinning dark brown liquid, boiled at 148 degrees Fahrenheit in the flask, into biodiesel.

Each batch took five hours to blend. Williams is testing the purity of the 10 liters that Maertens made this summer. The goal is to produce a blend without any signs of water, “otherwise, it would gunk up an engine,” Williams said.

The youngest Scouts, 11 years old, thought the idea of making biofuel was novel.

“I didn’t know you could do this, that you could make biofuel,” said Theodore Scharlotta, a Tenderfoot-ranked scout with JPL Troop 509, which meets every week at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “These are not things that I’ve ever wondered about before. But here it’s all about how people are coming together to solve these big problems.”

It’s the second year of the biofuel project, which fits well within the USC Wrigley Institute’s mission: “to inspire global environmental solutions through frontier research and education.” And, Williams noted, it could address a disposal problem, not just for the institute, but for the camps, restaurants and bars on the island.

Scouting the project

The two scientists who made the project possible happen to be former Scouts themselves. Williams, a researcher at USC Dornsife’s Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, grew up scouting in Houston. Kenneth Nealson, professor of Earth sciences and former USC Wrigley Institute director, spent many years as a scout in West Liberty, Iowa.

Although both had been at USC for several years, the two didn’t know each other very well until a few years ago, when Nealson saw the Scouts paddling their kayaks and canoes around the island. He then wondered why the institute didn’t have some educational role in the Scouts’ annual summer camps at Catalina Island. So, he hopped on a boat to visit a campsite.

Nealson learned that Williams was the commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America’s Greater Los Angeles Area Council that operates a camp, Cherry Valley, near the Wrigley Institute. The summer camps are an opportunity for Williams and his student researchers to teach the Scouts some chemistry and sustainability, while Nealson and staff would explain other green technologies at the institute, such as an aquaponics project that circulates water from a fish aquarium to nourish the growth of lettuce greens and tomatoes.

Scouts earn their rank through various activities. Badges are proof of their accomplishments.

“So, I thought, ‘Why don’t we make a USC Wrigley Institute sustainability merit badge?’” said Nealson, who holds the Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies.

The Scouts had introduced such a badge recently, and they have offered a chemistry merit badge in 1911.

Beyond biodiesel

Williams has funded the bulk of the pilot project, now in its second year, with a three-year, $485,000 National Science Foundation grant focused on catalysis science and scientific outreach in chemistry.

Ultimately, Williams has plans to advance the project from its current testing phase into a small, commercial endeavor. He is business partners with a former post-doctoral scholar in his lab, Zhiyao (Yao) Lu, who won the 2018 Wrigley Sustainability Prize of $7,000 to launch a startup company, Catapower, which is also supported by the university through its technology commercialization arm, the USC Stevens Center for Innovation. The Stevens Center supported the venture, Catapower Inc., through a $20,000 USC Innovation Summit prize last spring. The company is currently closing its seed round funding.

As soon as the biofuel conversion process is perfected, Catapower will take over the waste materials generated from the USC Wrigley pilot reactor and plants like it, and further upgrade the results. The groups are working together to turn cooking oils and other organic materials into renewable fuels and fine chemicals. The biodiesel could potentially fuel boats at Catalina Island such as the USC Wrigley Institute’s Miss Christy.

Catapower will sell its product, sodium lactate, at about $3.50 per kilogram as a benign food preservative, Williams said. This way, Catapower and USC are helping the biofuels industry displace chlorine, bleach and ammonia from the food supply.

“I like it because the university and scouting win when we can show the community that we provided a service that benefits users and the environment,” Williams said. “And, this is nice because it keeps the waste oils from getting into the water supply or from getting shipped back to the mainland.”