Biofuels are burnable energy sources produced by living organisms, like corn, algae, and even cows. Microorganisms and plants gather carbon from the atmosphere and incorporate it into the organic compounds that make up things like leaves, fruit, stems and wood. When animals eat plants and microbes, they store some of the carbon energy they’ve gobbled up as fat, like the milk fat used to make butter. Scientists call carbon stored in plants, microbes and animals “new” carbon. Old carbon is carbon tied up in fossil fuels like coal and oil, that’s been underground for millions of years.
Although butter isn’t usually burned as a fuel, a Pennsylvania farm show recently converted their thousand pound butter sculpture into 3 days-worth of power for a local farm, using a methane digester. The New York State Fair turned its butter sculptures into biodiesel fuel. At home, you can make a stick of butter into a candle to see for yourself how an animal product can be used as a fuel.
To make butter candles you’ll need a stick of butter, a toothpick or skewer, some cotton kitchen twine and scissors.
1. Cut the butter into the size candles you want. Place your candles on a fire-proof surface, like a metal plate.
2. Cut pieces of string slightly longer than the height of your candles.
3. Use a skewer or toothpick to poke a hole from the top of your candle to near the bottom.
4. Push your string into the hold using your skewer or toothpick. Leave 1/4 inch or so sticking out. This is your candle wick.
5. Rub a little butter onto the wick. Light your candle. It may take a few tries, but soon it should burn like a wax candle.
*As with all candles, butter candles should never be left unattended. Be sure to place your candles on a surface like a candle holder that cannot catch fire.
What happens? The lit cotton wick starts to burn and liquefies some of the butter fat. The wick then absorbs the melted butter and pulls it up,via capillary action, to the flame. The flame starts to burn the fat vapors rather than the wick, in a combustion reaction. This reaction produces heat, water vapor and carbon dioxide gas, putting the carbon is back in the atmosphere.
Since burning food isn’t an efficient use of energy or money (it takes lots of oil to raise and care for a cow,) scientists are coming up with ways to turn animal fats and byproducts that can’t be used as food into biofuels. Some inedible plant foods can be reused as well. For example, some cars can run on used cooking oil. Can you imagine how much oil a fast food restaurant throws away each week?
Although butter will never replace candle wax, butter candles are a good way to introduce the carbon cycle and get kids thinking about how new fuels and cleaner-burning fuel will impact the future of our planet.
To make the corn candle at the top of this post, we attached the butter candles to an ear of corn with broken off wooden skewers.