ELK RIVER, Minn. - Josh Wolf's parents knew they were in for an interesting ride when he started quizzing them about square roots. He was three years old at the time.
Today the Elk River High School sophomore is on a quest to solve the world's energy issues. He's off to a pretty good start.
Take the conversation he had last fall with one of the lunch ladies in the school cafeteria. Josh remembers it well.
"She was a little weirded out by it, 'What's that (she said), you want oil? You want the oil; you want the waste oil?'" explains Josh.
Student competition for the school's old deep-fryer oil had not been particularly fierce to that point, but how else was Josh going to fill those 20 large jugs that now line the back wall of one of the school's science rooms - or for that matter the 600 gallons of used cooking oil he collected in a dumpster behind the school?
What possible use could Josh have for all that old oil? Turns out Josh has been using household chemicals to turn that oil into diesel fuel.
"Here is the diesel that can actually be used straight into an engine," he says, pointing to the amber liquid that has separated from the fats in a storage jug. Minutes later Josh pours the bio-diesel into a pickup truck belonging to the father of one of his friends.
"It has a little bit smaller of a carbon chain than regular diesel does, explains Josh.
The friend appears unconcerned that a high school sophomore has just poured homemade fuel into her dad's Chevrolet truck.
"Josh is smart," she smiles.
He's also just warming up. Josh already has an agreement to collect used cooking oil from a local Chinese restaurant. He's now in talks with Elk River's school bus provider about selling them his fuel. But that's just to raise some capitol.
"This is just start up," he says.
The next phase of Josh's operation sits inside a soft-sided, temporary garage set up behind his family's home. The garage was a Christmas gift. It now houses his algae growing operation.
We won't reveal all Josh's scientific secrets, but by running his algae through some parts he salvaged from an old toy rocket launcher - in essence shocking the algae with low levels of electricity - Josh has been pulling out impressive amounts of usable oil.
One garbage can filled with water and algae has been generating about a liter of oil each day. It may not seem like a lot, but imagine the oil from hundreds of acres of algae. Josh already is. He envisions tankers of oil leaving such a facility.
His robotics coach, Mark Durand, has reason to think Josh is onto something.
"We met with some people from the industry and they said you need a provisional patent and you need one yesterday," Durands says.
So Josh is now the only kid at the school science fair with a patent attorney. He's also the only high school student on the list of seven finalists for the 2011 International Algae Competition. Some of the others finalists are from France, Switzerland and Thailand. All are either affiliated with universities or algae producing companies. Josh has yet to take high school chemistry.
Josh's award-winning entry included a picture of the 700-gallon algae tank he built himself, in the street in front of his house.
"Welcome to our world," smiles Josh's mother, Kim Wolf. "We try not to get in the way, mostly."
In recent weeks, Josh casually mentioned to his parents that he had figured out a way to turn plastic shopping bags into a gasoline substitute.
"This was just a little project that I did in March," he says rather nonchalantly.
Oh, and one more thing, this summer Josh will collect on a scholarship for six weeks of music study in Boston. Come fall he'll be a high school junior. It should be should be quite an encore.
(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)