Student team from Fort Wayne’s Memorial Park Middle School explores using waste to generate electricity for wastewater treatment plant

For their project in the eCYBERMISSION competition, Memorial Park Middle School seventh-graders, from left, Fiona Gochtovtt-Stine, Grace Gillie, Audrey Woodruff and Hannah Offhaus investigated what types of waste would make the best food source for methane-producing bacteria. The Fort Wayne City Utilities Wastewater Treatment Plant uses some bacteria-produced methane to generate electricity to help power the plant. (By Kevin Kilbane of News-Sentinel.com)

Their pursuit of science required working with some stinky stuff, but four seventh-graders persevered and reached a conclusion that may help Fort Wayne in the future.

Students Hannah Offhaus, 12, Audrey Woodruff, 13, Grace Gillie, 13, and Fiona Gochtovtt-Stine, 13, all of Memorial Park Middle School, analyzed five waste substances to see what one likely will be the best source for producing methane gas to fuel an electrical generator at the Fort Wayne Wastewater Treatment Plant on Dwenger Avenue.

“We think of waste as stuff that is not usable anymore, but we can take that stuff and make energy,” Grace said.

The students, whose team adviser was retired Memorial Park teacher Larry Lesh, took on the research as their project for the national eCYBERMISSION program’s Scientific Inquiry category.

The eCYBERMISSION program is an internet-based science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) competition for grades 6-9 that “promotes self-discovery and enables all students to recognize the real-life applications of STEM,” it said on the program’s website.

SEEKING ANSWERS

The Memorial Park team, who called themselves the Pirate Converters, finished first among seventh-grade team projects in Indiana and in the top three teams among 320 projects entered in the 11-state regional competition.

Only the regional winner advances to the national competition, and the Memorial Park team wasn’t the winner. However, each team member did receive a $2,000 U.S. Savings Bond for their Top 3 regional finish.

The young ladies decided on their project after talking over ideas with Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry and a couple of other community leaders in early September, they said.

Fort Wayne City Utilities had started in fall 2015 to capture some methane gas at the wastewater plant and burn it to generate electricity for the plant, students learned.

“I think another thing that appealed to us is it (their project) touched on so many problems,” such as reducing waste because of limited space in landfills and generating renewable energy, Audrey said.

They decided to test five waste items to see what one would provide the best food source for bacteria that digest the waste and then emit methane gas, which can be captured and burned as fuel.

The waste items were:

• Coffee grounds

• Bananas

• Bread

• Animal fat renderings

• By-products from the Nestle plant near Anderson

The wastewater plant already uses animal fat renderings and by-products from the Nestle plant to produce methane to provide some electricity at the plant, and so laboratory staff there had tested both waste substances previously, Hannah said.

THE RESULTS

Working with wastewater plant staff in the facility’s laboratory, the students ran their tests on the five substances to see what one would make the best food source the bacteria that generate the methane.

They first had to mash up each waste sample, add some water and then let it sit for a few days, Fiona said.

They used banana fruit rather than the peels because it would have been difficult to mash up the peels into a liquid, and any chunks would have thrown off the tests, Audrey said.

The animal fat and Nestle by-products were “very smelly,” Hannah said.

In their project hypothesis, team members predicted bananas would be the best source for producing methane, and their testing backed up that suspicion, they said.

That works out well, they added, because fruits and vegetables make up most of the waste going to the landfill in Fort Wayne.

For the eCYBERMISSION competition, team members also had to answer a set of questions about their project, which is what they were judged on for the state competition. At the regional competition finals, they had to answer questions posed live by judges. Both the state and regional competitions took place earlier this spring.

Looking ahead, Fort Wayne likely will need more machinery to process waste if it wants to produce more methane to increase the electrical power generated at the wastewater plant, Fiona said.

“It is not an easy process,” she added. “But it has potential.”

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