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Sustainability Lesson Clearinghouse

Plants in Your Gas Tank: From Photosynthesis to Ethanol

Lesson Description:
With ethanol becoming more prevalent in the media and in gas tanks, it is important for students to know from where it comes. this module uses a series of activities to show how energy and mass are converted from one form to another. it focuses on the conversion of light energy into chemical energy via photosynthesis. it then goes on to show how the chemical energy in plant sugars can be fermented to produce ethanol. finally, the reasons for using ethanol as a fuel are discussed.

in the initial activity, students use paper chromatography to separate plant pigments from leaves. in this module’s second activity the students consider what the source of mass for plants is as they grow. they form hypotheses then design and perform experiments to test their hypotheses. next the students design an experiment to determine which of three different sugars produces the most fermentation products. once they figure this out, they then determine what concentration of their "best" sugar would maximize ethanol production and minimize cost. finally, students discuss the production and use of ethanol as a fuel.

this module follows the path of energy from the sun and photosynthesis to ethanol production. teachers can stress that in every step of the process energy is neither created nor destroyed. it just changes form. the same can be said of mass.

the module highlights a general method of chemical analysis (chromatography - activity one) that is used in more high tech forms to determine the types and concentrations of fermentable sugars produced from cellulosic biomass. activity two investigates from where plants get their mass. producing ethanol from cellulose is difficult but does not compete with food production. activity three in this module will help show students why it is important to measure the types and concentrations of the sugars produced.

purpose of the education module:
the purpose of this module is to help students understand an important aspect of environmental maintenance; the use of plants for the production of fuel resulting in 0-net carbon dioxide yield.

learning objectives:
students will
-discuss the role of plant pigments in photosynthesis.
-know that photosynthesis produces sugars.
-discover that as plants grow the mass required to do so comes from the air(carbon dioxide).
-identify ethanol as a product of sugar fermentation and discover that not all sugars produce equal amounts of fermentation products.
-relate photosynthesis and fermentation to the concept of conservation of energy and mass.
-discuss the environmental and economic benefits of ethanol as a fuel additive.
-demonstrate appropriate safe laboratory behavior and techniques.
-document observations and data in an organized appropriate laboratory format.
-analyze and interpret the results of the experimental data and observations.
-communicate their results and conclusions in written lab reports.
Lesson Type:
  • Discussion
  • Experiment
  • Project

Sustainability Topic:
  • Energy
  • Other

Standards Addressed:
National science education standards:
content standard a: science as inquiry
as a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop
-abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
-understandings about scientific inquiry

content standard b: physical science
as a result of their activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop an understanding of
-structure of atoms
-structures and of properties in matter
-chemical reactions

content standard c: life science understanding of the cell

content standard e: science and technology
as a result of their activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop
-abilities of technological design
-understandings about science and technology

content standard f: science in personal and social perspectives
as a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of
-natural resources
-environmental quality
-science and technology in local, national, and global challenges

content standard g: history and nature of science
as a result of their activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of
-science as a human endeavor
-nature of scientific knowledge
Materials Needed:
-eye protection
-1, 2, and 3 liter bottles
-plant seeds (radish, spinach, bean, etc.)
-centigram balance
-dried soil
School or Group:
U.s. Department of Energy
Contact Email:
Service@greeneducationfoundation.org
Lesson Documents:
application/pdf acts_benson_biofuel_313.pdf
Located in: Science

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