WORTHINGTON — We all have moments when we look at something and wonder what it is. Maybe it is something new or something we haven’t noticed before. Maybe it is something we see or use every day. Childhood is endlessly filled with these moments — as a parent of a toddler, I get to see my daughter’s sense of wonder at the world firsthand. But even in older age, our sense of curiosity never quite goes away. When is the last time you looked at something and asked yourself “What is this stuff?”

One way to dig into these questions is using chemistry, sometimes referred to as the “central science.” Since chemists study the universe at the tiny scale of atoms and molecules, chemistry is central to combining fundamental principles studied in mathematics and physics with phenomena in biology, medicine, materials science and engineering. Chemistry provides a way to understand what something might be, where it might have come from and what could happen to it.

This past semester at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, students in General Chemistry asked some questions about a common, seemingly simple item that costs around $3 per gallon: diesel fuel. What are the components of diesel fuel? What is biodiesel? Where does biodiesel come from? How is biodiesel made? In other words, what is it?

General Chemistry students began by considering the molecular structure of compounds in diesel fuel, biodiesel and soybean oil. Students used concepts from class to connect molecular structures with characteristics we observe. Students learned ways to calculate energy stored in biodiesel and how it is released in combustion reactions to power our vehicles. Students learned methods to calculate reaction yields and assess efficiency.

Next, students performed laboratory experiments where they converted store-bought soybean oil (known as vegetable oil) to biodiesel fuel and then analyzed the purity of their products. Students considered how certain variables impacted their observations and then brainstormed ways to improve the yield and efficiency of their reactions.

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Finally, through a partnership with Minnesota Soybean Processors (MnSP) in Brewster, students had the opportunity to take a guided tour of an operational biodiesel refinery. At MnSP, students learned about the rigorous analytical chemistry testing that takes place in quality control, the engineering that goes into plant design, operation and management, and logistical and safety measures that are critical to manufacturing biodiesel on a large scale. Through their visit to MnSP, students saw how their own small-scale experiments in the teaching lab were directly applicable to local industry and our local economy.

At Minnesota West, our mission is to prepare learners for a lifetime of success. Part of achieving our mission means offering chemistry courses at all levels to provide students with skills that translate across educational and career paths. Chemistry courses are integrated into many two-year programs, and chemistry courses are also transfer-ready to four-year colleges and universities. All of Minnesota West’s chemistry courses integrate laboratory experiments, where students learn how to apply chemistry principles by asking questions, forming hypotheses, designing experiments, interpreting data and drawing conclusions. We boast small class sizes at Minnesota West, and our labs use cutting-edge instrumentation, some of which is donated by local industry partners including MnSP.

While most people may never need to draw a picture of biodiesel’s molecular structure, studying chemistry at Minnesota West is still incredibly beneficial to students’ futures. Studying chemistry strengthens skills including critical thinking, technical communication, teamwork and problem solving. Just as learning a new language can open doors to new stories and cultures, learning the tools of chemistry as the “central science” can open doors to new understanding of other sciences, engineering, medicine and ways to improve our world. Perhaps best of all, studying chemistry renews and reinforces curiosity about our world for a lifetime of asking “What is this?”

Tyler Wadzinski is the chemistry instructor at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.