Bexley students fired up about methane as energy source

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Bexley Mayor John Brennan on May 27 presents proclamations to teacher Lindsay Young and students, from left, Maranda Gammage, Nan Boyle, Hannah Hood and Meghan Heckman, for being named finalists in the Christopher Awards competition. Their experiments in turning methane into an energy source earned them a trip to Walt Disney World to compete for the $25,000 top prize.

For four young scientists working in the Bexley schools, trash is a terrible thing to waste.

 "We’re wasting our waste," and it can be used to generate energy – lots of it – the team of Nan Boyle, Meghan Heckman, and Maranda Gammage, from Bexley Middle School, and Hannah Hood, who attends Madison Christian School, concluded in their research on the use of methane from landfills.

They calll their project "Trash to Treasure."

For their work, the students have been chosen to travel to Walt Disney World this month to compete for the top prize in the Christopher Columbus Awards, including a $25,000 grant to further their experiments and implement it in the community.

The young women, who began their work as sixth-graders under the tutelage of teacher Lindsay Young, were presented with proclamations from Mayor John Brennan May 27.

Brennan noted that the team has been selected as one of the top 18 in the nation.

This is the third time that Bexley Middle School has sent a team to the Christoper Award finals. The other groups worked under the supervision of Hannah’s father, Jon Hood, then a Bexley Middle School science teacher before moving to the principalship of Maryland Elementary School, where the latest project was launched.

The team started by researching a number of environmental problems in the community before focusing on the use of methane to generate electricity.

They visited the SWACO landfill, where methane generated by the trash piles is burned off, and the Kurtz Brothers facility in Groveport, where yard waste is composted.

They discovered that 6,000 landfills across the country also burn off this valuable but volatile gas, while 425 dumps capture and convert the gas into 10 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year.

Locally, the landfills create enough methane to heat 10,000 homes a year. Nationally, 16 million homes could be powered by methane, they learned.

Since it is a highly volatile gas, the students could not work directly with methane. Instead, they set up an experiment in which they measured the inner temperature of a large pile of decomposing waste.

They knew from their research that if there is heat being generated through decomposition, methane is being produced.

The experiment found that the temperature inside the pile was an average 50 degrees higher than the outside air, confirming the presence of methane.

Their initial work did not earn them a trip to the Christopher finals as sixth-graders. But the young women were not discouraged, Young recalled, and decided to do further research to come up with a formula for converting the gas.

Their additional research took them to Ohio State University, where Professor Ann Christy had set up a "bio-digester" using fluids from a cow’s stomach to create methane that could be used to fuel batteries that would illuminate a light bulb.

The Bexley students went on to build their own "bio-digester."

They also spoke with Kristi Michaels and Tim Berlekamp at SWACO about their efforts, with the help of a company called FirmGreen, to use the methane generated at the site to heat their own building.

They also went to Kurtz Brothers, where the research on temperatures within the compost piles took place.

Unlike petroleum or natural gas, methane is a renewable energy source, since we aren’t likely to run out of trash any time soon, the students point out.

And it’s probably cleaner to convert and use methane than simply burning off the raw gas at landfills.

On their Web site (which can be linked at www.bexleycityschools.org) the students teach the Three Rs – "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle," and offer instructions for starting a home compost pile.

For the competition, the students will have five minutes to explain their experiment and perform a skit. The students have written "A Garbage Carol," with the Ghosts of Garbage Past, Present and Future trying to convince Scrooge of the importance of using waste for energy.

They hope to use the prize money to further efforts in the community "and maybe start a trend," Nan Boyle said.

Stopping global warming and other environmental crises can’t wait, she added. "We have to fix it now, not fix it later."

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