Nathan Dietz can measure paper by the cup. For that matter, he can measure its calorie count and how long it will take to burn when compressed into a small, compact cylinder.
The 16-year-old Chatfield high school junior is taking all that esoteric knowledge with him in May to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Anaheim, Calif., which, as of Wednesday, was still scheduled to proceed. That opportunity presented itself after he won the 2020 Southeastern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin Regional Science and Engineering Fair.
The title of Dietz’s project is “Transformation of household and agricultural waste into stable and energy dense biomass briquettes."
The end result of Dietz’s science project is a small, white cylinder. The surface is perhaps a little larger than that of a quarter. It's maybe an inch or two thick, making it look somewhat similar to the lid of a gallon of milk. Though Dietz could have made it larger if he wanted to.
Even that one small cylinder, though, has quite a bit of energy to it.
“The beauty of paper is that it can be burned,” Dietz said. “So I found a way to compress this (paper) into a very dense and stable biomass that also will give out a sustainable heat source for a good amount of time.”
By sustainable, he means it’s hard to break. To prove his point, Dietz stood up and threw the compacted cylinder against the linoleum floor. It didn’t break or chip, even though there aren’t any adhesives holding the paper together.
In its previous form, that cylinder might have been several pages worth of Dietz’s homework assignment from science class. Rather than recycle it or throw it away after it served its original purpose, it might end up serving as fuel in a campfire, or potentially even heating a home.
Getting the paper into that compact little chuck took several steps. Part of it included soaking the paper for several days. That caused the cellulose fibers to break up, turning the paper into an oatmeal-like material which he could pour into measuring cups.
“It’s about a quarter-cup of paper,” Dietz said, referring to one of the briquettes he made. “So, it’s not much.”
He then used a caulk-gun to compress the material.
It’s not just paper. Dietz has a bag of other other substances he’s compacted. One was made of sawdust. Another was made of hay. He tried seven different variants.
Once he made the briquettes, he had to determine whether or not they would actually produce any energy. So in addition to the actual compacted material, he made a calorimeter -- a device that measures how much energy an object has.
Lacking the budget of a corporate engineering lab -- or even the lab that some larger high schools might have -- Dietz’s version includes duct tape and a soda can, among other odds and ends. But, it gets the job done.
He found that the compressed paper has roughly 2.5 calories per gram.
“I actually found out that incorporating household waste and agricultural waste can actually increase (the number of) calories,” Dietz said.
As far as Dietz is concerned, the project accomplishes a couple things. One is that it provides an alternate heat source. Another result is that it provides another way to recycle paper rather than just throwing it away.
“I noticed that in my family, we’re throwing away a lot of stuff,” Dietz said.