"Wood to Wheels" - Research Experience for High School Teachers in Sustainable Transportation Technologies


Sustainable Futures Institute
1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, Michigan 49931

Phone: 906.487.3612
Fax: 906.487.2943
e-mail: sfi@mtu.edu

Taking temperature data in the Light ‘Em Up student lab .



















































Biofuels to Mechanical Energy Conversion

Teacher Infomation:Karl Balke

Cass Tech High School


Unit OverviewThis unit allows students to explore global climate change and biofuels. Students will explore the effects of combustion and how an engine works. They will also investigate how engineers are designing solutions relating to these issues.

Target Grade Level: High School Science

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Download RET Research Poster

Lesson Plans:
Lesson One: Crisis?  What Crisis?

Students watch the film An Inconvenient Truth and answer questions during the presentation on a worksheet or graphic organizer.  Small group discussions and presentations serve to deepen understanding and provide motivation for the rest of the unit.  After viewing the film, students will gather in small groups and share the answers to the questions posed on worksheets/graphic organizers.  The group will come to a consensus and construct a presentation for the class.  Students then produce an individual written product to demonstrate their understanding of the topic.

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Lesson Two: Alternative Fuels

Students perform a biofuels research activity, where they perform a web-quest/scavenger hunt online activity concerning an assigned biofuel.  Students are then the experts in their respective fuel and present their findings to the class.  Students realize that the ultimate source of the energy is the sun, and that plants concentrate this energy.  Burning fossil fuels (non-renewable) releases the sun’s energy from millions of years ago into our current environment, while burning Biofuels releases the energy recently concentrated in biomass.  The Department of Energy, in collaboration with private enterprise, has established a web site Fuel Our Future Now that is a valuable resource.

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Lesson Three: Light ‘Em Up, Dirty Burn

Students perform experiments in the combustion of various biofuels through two experiments: Light ‘Em Up and Dirty Burn

In Light ‘Em Up, the students will burn measured amounts of readily available fuels (diesel, kerosene, ethanol, methanol, gasoline/ethanol blends, and R/C nitro methane) in a controlled environment.  The students will measure the rise in temperature of a known quantity of water to gauge the amount heat each fuel released.

Performed simultaneously, in Dirty Burn students will gather the products of combustion in a filter apparatus and measure the amount of particulate matter that each fuel produces.  Students will then evaluate which fuel has the least amount of particulate matter, but also leads to a discussion of other waste combustion products that may be more difficult to remove and require expensive catalytic reactors.

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Lesson Four: Transparent Engine, Animated Engine

In this lecture, research group, or individual student lesson, the students will analyze and diagram the various kinds of engine technologies that are used in transportation.  High-speed video of the operation of an alcohol fueled internal combustion transparent engine and computer simulations (animatedengine.com) of different engines provide insight into how the internal combustion process works in engines used for transportation.  Students will also investigate the possible application of external combustion (Stirling) engines.  The teacher will provide a method (Graphic Organizer) for taking notes during the demonstration.   

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Lesson Five: Engine Characterization Spreadsheet

In a Virtual Laboratory environment, students will use an engine characterization spreadsheet to adjust engine parameters to model and optimize the characteristics of an internal combustion engine.  Changing the compression ratio will show improvements in efficiency, until friction losses begin to dominate.  Changes in the intake pressure and the Equivalence Ratio also impact the efficiency, but also have an impact on emissions.  Changes in engine speed can produce an increase in power, but efficiency is lost at some point to friction and airflow. 

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Lesson Six: Advanced Internal Combustion Engine (AICE) Data Analysis

Data from the Advanced Energy Research Building (AERB) and from the Advanced Internal Combustion Engine (AICE) labs will be used to generate ACT style questions where the students will analyze several graphs and tables of data to see how changes in one parameter can influence others.  Data will address fuel efficiency, different fuel mixes (AERB), combustion by-products (AICE), and efficiency (AICE).

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Lesson Seven: So You Want to be an Engineer?

Students will investigate the role of engineers in this process and broaden their definition to include that engineers are problem solvers and creative thinkers who use their skills to make the world a better place.

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