Thornton Academy students are conducting experiments on algae that will be used for alternative energy research.
Irving Backman, a Newton Centre, Mass., resident who graduated from Thornton in 1943, has given a science class financial support to provide him with data on algae as he researches the likelihood of using the plant to make biodiesel.
The Thornton Academy Environmental Research Collaborative is a science elective with 12 students. Students in the class are performing experiments to determine what the best conditions are for algae growth.
The information that the class collects will be used to help determine if it is feasible to grow algae to use as a fuel.
Algae oil can be used to make biodiesel, which can be used to fuel vehicles, said student Marc Beauchemin.
Teacher Christy Lajoie said that the research is student driven.
“It’s not a teacher standing at the front of the room telling them what to do,” she said in a written statement. “They have to be deliberate about their work and always need to think about what questions they want to answer and which variables they will test in subsequent experiments.”
The students have been working with chlorella vulgaris, growing it in small jars and then transferring it to two-gallon tanks.
The students, through their research, have determined that the algae grows better in tap water as opposed to distilled water, and grows better under compact fluorescent lights as opposed to incandescent lights.
The research has not been without a few mishaps.
The algae are native to Columbia, and need to be kept warm, said student Shannon Folsom. She said that the class had put some containers of algae on the windowsill, but it got too cold and died. She said that the class might experiment with algae native to Maine that could withstand colder temperatures.
During a recent experiment to determine if pumping air into the water makes a difference in algae growth, the tanks became contaminated, said Beauchemin, and students were going to sterilize the tanks yesterday and redo the experiment.
Students in the class said they have learned a lot.
“It’s really a hands-on course,” said student Peter Bilotta.
“We get to test our own ideas. We’re not being told exactly what to do,” said Morgan Strout.
The students not only conduct their own experiments, but also must collect data and write reports that will be used for Backman’s research.
About half the class wishes to pursue further studies in science at college, and this is good experience for them, said Lajoie.
The students are also learning group management and problem solving skills that will benefit all students, regardless of their future endeavors, said Lajoie.
The project will be further supported by a $40,000 grant from the Davis Family Foundation, a public charitable foundation established by Phyllis C. Davis and H. Halsey Davis of Falmouth, that supports educational, medical, cultural and arts organizations.
Lajoie said there is enough work for the project to go beyond the school year, and future research could include growing algae in a greenhouse.
— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 282-1535, Ext. 325 or [email protected].