BYU student turns waste into renewable energy

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Most students try to make an environmental impact by recycling their old water bottles or walking to campus instead of driving. However, one BYU student takes her passion for helping the environment to a whole new level.

Mackenzie Mayo, a senior from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., studying chemistry, has recently completed a research project that helps break down waste into renewable fuel, such as methane gas. In this experiment, Mayo uses hydrogen peroxide and UV light to break down materials that aren’t easily digested like grass clippings, sawdust and algae to create renewable fuel. Mayo has focused her research on this pretreatment process.

[media-credit name=”Photo by Jaren Wilkey” align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]
MacKenzie published research about how to better convert things like algae, sawdust and grass clippings into natural gas.
Her passion for the environment started at a young age and helped her decide on an area to focus on.

“I got my interest in sustainability and renewable resources from my family,” Mayo said in an email. “When I was growing up, we were always very earth-conscious, and that has definitely influenced my interest in this type of research.”

The perfect opportunity presented itself during her sophomore year. Mayo wanted to start working in a research lab, but she couldn’t decide what to focus on specifically. She then came across Professor Jaron Hansen’s research. Hansen, a chemistry professor who specializes in analytical research, had conducted research on sustainability and renewable energy. She said she knew right then she had found her purpose.

During the past couple of years, Hansen and Mayo worked endlessly to perfect the process.

“With Mackenzie’s help, we now can take the algae after we squeezed all the fat out of it to make it into diesel,” Hansen said, “and then take the dried leftover stuff and we can pretreat it, feed it to our bacteria and get methane gas out of it. This is the natural gas that you use to heat your home.”

Mayo also worked with Lee Hansen, a retired chemistry professor. He said his expertise on the mechanism of peroxide oxidation reactions with polymers from work he did years ago proved useful in this application. He also was able to edit Mayo’s draft of the project when she completed her research.

The work Mayo completed through the experiment proved groundbreaking and has even been published in a journal. Mayo, along with co-authors Jaron Hansen and Lee Hansen, was published in a journal last semester by Transactions of the American Society of Agriculture and Biological Engineers.

With a published experiment under her belt, Mayo hopes her research will continue to push boundaries and help the environment in the long run. Her experiment provides a great launching point for others to follow.

“Hopefully, yard waste and other organic materials can be converted to fuel on a large-scale basis,” Mayo said. “We need to continue diversifying our energy sources, and this method presents another way to do that.”

Mayo graduates in April and is hoping to pursue her passion of conservation work and environmental science. Although she plans on attending graduate school, she wants to spend some time working first. Whatever Mayo chooses, Jaron Hansen is certain she will make an impact.

“[Being published] opens a lot of doors,” Jaron Hansen said. “She has already started to make a name for herself in this field.”

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