A biodiesel project

28Mar10

Click here to view interactive graphic.

In late 2006, at the height of soaring gas prices worldwide, five engineering students at Marquette University in Milwaukee embarked on a project to build a device that would produce home-made biodiesel. For the most part of 2007, they gathered regularly in an old warehouse where they drew up their plan and physically assembled the device. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter followed their every step through the completion of the project.

The series of graphics that I produced, and was published in the newspaper, recorded visually the progress of their work. Because the newspaper decided to run the series in five parts, I thought it best to design the graphic like a teaser ad, done peekaboo style, Day 1 to Day 5, each day moving the story forward by showing more of the project’s progress.

Day 1, as all Day 1’s do, just introduced the project by showing the names of team members, their objective and what their hypothetical customers needed. Plus reading materials and other references.

On Day 2, the hands in the graphic pulls back the curtain to show a little bit more. Based on a concept that the students have put down on paper, they now have a basic diagram of a tank, a pump, valves and a heating unit. They know some wiring has to be done and that they need sensors. They have a come up with a bill of materials plus a rough idea of how much the items cost.

By Day 3, weird-looking chemical formulas and equations have appeared on the blackboard. Methyl alcohol, lye and soybean oil have been purchased. A blender sits on the table, waiting to do its part in the project.

The project seems to be picking up steam on Day 4. The team’s resident programming expert has the codes down in his laptop. Rockwell Automation has donated a handheld programming device. A surprise partner from Florida has played Mr. Moneybags and shelled out money for a reactor tank, sprinkler valves, PVC pipes and various fittings, among many items. The funds couldn’t have come at a better time. Money was running low and so was the team’s enthusiasm. The students were starting to wonder if they could ever finish the project. The cash infusion put them back on track.

By Day 5, the pair of hands has pulled back the curtain all the way, revealing a completed biodiesel project.

The project came up short of the team’s key objectives – the sensors didn’t work well, the sprinklers gave them trouble, the final product was inferior to what they really wanted – but was nevertheless a modest success. The project showed them how poor planning can ruin a project, how important it is to have a Plan B, and maybe a Plan C. Most of all, it gave them a taste of how difficult it is to make it on your own in the real world.

INTERACTIVE: HOW TO CAPTURE CARBON DIOXIDE

The members went on to graduate, go separate ways and pursue jobs. But each one will always remember that memorable biodiesel project that, for them, turned out to be nothing short of a right of passage.

Graphics by Alfred Elicierto, published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on May 11, 2008.

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Also in this blog:
Chemo’s effects on the brain
The Haiti earthquake
Treating gunshot wounds
How ‘Big Foot’ tracks earthquakes
Fixing Toyota’s sticky pedal
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