Eco-Camp Offers Lessons On Alternative Fuels

At Maryland's Camp Calleva, most campers engage in typical activities like rafting, kayaking or rock climbing. But a few spend a week in a program called Building Green, learning about environmentally friendly design and alternative energy. This year's project: alternative fuels.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

If you sent children to camp this summer, you might have a few expectations that they would make new friends, have fun, maybe get a few freckles. How about a 9-year-old learning how to make biodiesel fuel or insulate a house with recycled materials? Do they charge union rates? NPR's Jenny Gold reports on a Maryland camp that's putting a green twist on summer.

U: (Singing) C-A-L-L-E-V-A!

U: (Singing) C-A-L-L-E-V-A!

U: (Singing) Camp Calleva starts today.

U: (Singing) Camp Calleva starts today.

JENNY GOLD: A typical day at Camp Calleva for most campers includes rafting, kayaking or rock climbing. But this group, part of a program called Building Green, has another kind of adventure in mind.

U: All right. Building Green, don't forget to grab all your stuff. This is our stop.

GOLD: Twelve campers file off the bus carrying brown-bag lunches, hammers, handsaws and drills. They're spending their week of summer camp learning about green design and alternative energy. Last year, the group built composting toilets in a treetop classroom. This year, they're building a new, environmentally friendly office for the camp. The construction site is on the other side of a creek, so the kids start the day with a trip across in a rickety wooden raft. They load up their gear and climb aboard. Two little girls jump into the water and hang off the edge of the raft, kicking their legs to propel it forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRLS SHOUTING AND SINGING)

GOLD: They could have just taken the bus a little further to get to the same place, but the most important thing here is being green, even if it takes a while to reach the shore.

U: Come on, a little bit faster, a little bit faster.

GOLD: When they finally get there, the kids leap off the raft and get to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILLING)

SIMON: A little faster on the trigger. A little faster on the trigger. And then just follow that line.

GOLD: That's Omar Hakeem, or Mo, as the kids call him. With one master's degree in architecture and another in environmental sustainability, he's in charge of the project. Some of this is real manual labor, and the kids' parents are paying close to $500 a week. But once a week - and today is that special day - the kids move beyond their jobs building green and into the world of alternative fuel. So after lunch, they head over to the reactor room. That's the barn where Calleva turns leftover cooking oil from restaurants and the nearby downtown of Poolesville into actual biodiesel used to fuel camp vehicles.

SIMON: You know what? You can grow any type of oil to run in a diesel engine.

GOLD: Matt Markoff is a Calleva camp director turned biodiesel wizard.

SIMON: Right now we're making biodiesel, which is diesel made out of vegetable oil that they make French fries. You guys like French fries?

U: Yeah.

GOLD: Right now, Markoff makes about a 100 gallons a week here. That's enough to fuel the Calleva farm equipment and a couple of trucks. But with bigger biodiesel machinery on the way, Markoff thinks he'll be able to triple that.

SIMON: The goal is that next year, we will be able to run - 20 percent of all the fuel that we use will be biodiesel.

GOLD: Including the camp's fleet of 20 buses. The kids can't help much here in the reactor room because the chemicals are toxic, but Markoff wants them to understand exactly how this process works.

SIMON: Do you guys want to pump some grease?

U: Yeah.

SIMON: All right. Come on in here.

U: Awesome!

GOLD: First, he explains, they gather waste vegetable grease from restaurants and pump it into the processing tank. They heat the oil to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and test a sample to find out how much lye and methanol they have to add to turn the grease into fuel.

SIMON: Eleven grams of my catalyst to every liter of grease. Do you guys get that?

GOLD: The oil and catalysts are mixed, allowed to separate, and then...

SIMON: Up top is biodiesel. Beautiful, clear, gorgeous biodiesel.

GOLD: They move the crude biodiesel to the wash tank, where it's rinsed with rainwater and aerated in the drying tank. The kids are captivated.

SIMON: Vegetable oil is converted into fuel that can be run on all diesel engines, which is pretty cool.

GOLD: Fifteen-year-old Jacob Gallisian is one of the oldest kids in Building Green.

SIMON: It is kind of complicated. A few stuff went right over my head, but I got the basics.

GOLD: And that kind of response is exactly what Mo is looking for. The kids aren't just having fun, he says. They're also learning.

SIMON: Well, surprisingly enough, you know, kids come back and they go, oh, do you remember when you were telling us about how much water infiltrates through turf grass? And I was like, I can't believe you remember that.

GOLD: Matt Markoff says Building Green and the biodiesel project are going to help the whole camp become more energy independent.

SIMON: When they get on a Calleva bus, and they drive to camp, and it smells like French fries, you know, then - I mean, we are very much going to make it aware that, you know, our buses are running on biodiesel.

GOLD: By next summer, just riding the bus at Camp Calleva will be a greening experience. Jenny Gold, NPR News.

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