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Our Neighbors.... Brian Krohn

If not for a perceptive counselor at Augsburg College, chemistry major Brian Krohn might be preparing to attend pharmacy school after he graduates at the end of this year.

If not for a perceptive counselor at Augsburg College, chemistry major Brian Krohn might be preparing to attend pharmacy school after he graduates at the end of this year.

"It was Dixie Shafer," Krohn said with a smile of the counselor, who is the college's director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Graduate Opportunity. "After talking with me for only about five minutes, she said in her very blunt way that I should not go to 'pharm' school. She was also key in helping to get my biodiesel research project approved."

Thanks to her advice, Krohn left behind the idea of a pharmacy career and is fast becoming notorious for helping develop a new, cleaner way to make biodiesel. The research findings prompted by Krohn are causing quite a stir, especially in light of recent reports denouncing traditionally-made biodiesel as a viable alternative fuel.

Shortly after Krohn's talk with Shafer in early 2006, he decided to seek summer research opportunities. Krohn was referred to college professor Dr. Arlin Gyberg, who didn't have any research projects under way, but agreed to work with Krohn to develop one.

Both were interested in alternative fuels and it was Gyberg, an analytical chemist, who said, "We should research these veggie oil cars," according to Krohn.

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Because neither were experts on biodiesel, Krohn wrote a research proposal that included learning all he could about it, then analyzing the make-up of various types of the fuel.

Once Krohn's project was approved and he began absorbing all he could find on the topic, he concluded that he wanted to research a new way to produce biodiesel.

"The talk was that using a solid catalyst to make it, instead of a liquid one currently used, could be the future of the fuel," he explained.

No one had yet used a solid catalyst to make biodiesel. However, research had suggested three types that could possibly work and Krohn wanted to test at least one of those options.

Zirconia (commonly used in imitation diamond jewelry) was one catalyst Krohn wanted to test, but it was expensive and he called on Gyberg to figure out how to obtain it. Remarkably, Gyberg recalled that an Augsburg alum, Clayton McNeff, was using the material in his work at SarTec Corporation, a company in Anoka, Minn., that creates yucca-based natural products.

The three had a meeting and everyone came away excited about the idea, Krohn remembered.

From that point, Krohn worked with McNeff, Gyberg and fellow scientist Dr. Bing Yan throughout the rest of the summer to see if they could achieve success using zirconia to make biodiesel.

Just before Krohn's portion of the research was up, they hit pay dirt.

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"We started with one clear liquid and then we pumped it through [the process]," he said. "It came out yellow so we knew it did something and after we analyzed it we knew it was biodiesel and [that our process] worked!"

Since then, the continuous process, which they named McGyan (after McNeff, Gyberg and Yan), has only continued to produce excellent results.

With the zirconia as the solid catalyst, the problems associated with the traditional method are, so far, eliminated.

"The main problems with the traditional method of making biodiesel include expensive feedstock, low tolerance for contaminants such as water or fatty acids, not being able to reuse the liquid catalyst, and the high amount of waste produced," he said.

In the McGyan method, oil or tallow feedstocks and alcohol are converted into biodiesel. Once through the reactor, the excess alcohol is separated out and recycled back into the continuous process, according to the SarTec Web site.

SarTec is currently in the process, with Ever Cat Fuels, LLC, of building a three-million- gallon-per-year demonstration plant incorporating the McGyan biodiesel production process.

Although Krohn is very busy with his college classes, he heads out to SarTec fairly regularly to keep himself involved in that venture. At Augsburg, in addition to his chemistry major, he is also completing minors in math and biology. He is also president of the chemistry society and is the founding editor of the Augsburg Honors Review.

He recently learned he will graduate summa cum laude, which is the highest honor a student can earn.

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Krohn has also continued researching and traveled to Austria last year through Syracuse University where he worked on pharmaceutical engineering research during the summer.

For some added learning fun while he was a junior, he created a class called the Art, History and Science of Brewing - beer. He and three other students brewed beer, learned about its history and capped off the class by inviting other students and faculty to attend a session where two bigwigs from local brewing companies judged the beer they had made.

"The winner was a dunkel beer, a very dark Bavarian lager," he said. "We covered the whole gamut of the subject and learned a lot."

Krohn has also started a green vehicle initiative at school and plans are in the works to convert a campus security vehicle into a hybrid that will be partially powered by the biodiesel made at SarTec.

Although Krohn would like to drive a car that runs on biodiesel, he currently drives "what he can get," which is a hand-me-down Mazda.

"It's blue with a white trunk with a side mirror that is taped onto the car," he said with a laugh.

Augsburg has turned out to be a good fit for Krohn, even though he originally decided to attend the school for its film program.

"I met the Augsburg representative at Cloquet High School by chance and liked that they offered film classes," he said.

He only completed one semester of film courses before deciding that would be a hobby for him, not a career.

Science always interested him as well, however, and he found a real passion for it around age 10.

"I loved Mr. Langley's fifth-grade science class," he recalled. "He showed me how to take a flashlight apart and we've never had a working one in my parents' house ever since!"

The flashlight parts were used in various electricity experiments, Krohn explained.

His parents, Tim and Mary Krohn, still live in the house of flashlight parts in Cloquet, and work for the Fond du Lac Reservation and Sappi, respectively. Krohn's older brother, Jeff, works at Sappi with computer systems and his sister, Kristina, is currently in medical school.

While at Cloquet Middle School, Krohn also remembers the posters with scientists surrounded by a variety of bubbling concoctions.

"I wanted to be able to do what they were doing," he said.

Krohn's interest must have shown, as he was bestowed with a certificate naming him "The next Thomas Edison," while there.

In high school, he enjoyed chemistry and starting thinking then that a future in chemistry might be something he would enjoy.

"Back then, however, I thought the only job option would be to teach," he said. "But chemistry is involved in so many different careers, you can get a job almost anywhere with that degree."

After he graduates, Krohn plans to attend graduate school, although he is not certain what his focus will be. For now, his plans involve looking for scholarships that could take him abroad for a year, researching grad schools and presenting his biodiesel research in Washington D.C. in late April.

For what would seem a very well-deserved break, he will travel to Greece this summer with his girlfriend, Kari Aanestad of Fargo, who is also a student at Augsburg.

Pine Journal Editor Lisa Baumann can be contacted at: lbaumann@pinejournal.com .

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