The students in Team Biodiesel reached Christmas break knowing their project had survived a stressful beginning. They were not sure it would survive the year.
Still, in the first week of January, the Marquette seniors began e-mailing each other about ordering chemicals and equipment for the machine they were building. In four months, they'd scaled down the project's size and ambition: from a reactor making biodiesel for the university to a mini-version making fuel for one instructor, their adviser.
The smaller version was the focus of their final proposal.
Almost 1,300 miles away, a 52-year-old businessman sat at his computer in Clearwater, Fla., and typed in a Google search. Biodiesel projects and universities.
Bill Gehrs, president of Florida Biodiesel Inc., once designed satellite and cable television systems. Gehrs now sold fuel systems. He'd
started out running the business from his home, selling biodiesel reactors that he put together in his living room.
His Internet search pulled up the primitive Web site that adviser Mark Polczynski had created for the Marquette students back in October. Gehrs noticed that the project differed from those at other schools. He saw no corporate sponsor listed.
"Hello," he wrote in a one-sentence e-mail, "I am interested in speaking with Dr. Polczynski regarding possibly sponsoring the Biodiesel Micro-Brewery class." Within a few hours the two men were chatting by phone. Polczynski said his students planned to build a reactor. Gehrs suggested a change. He would donate a reactor if the students would build a controller to automate it.
The systems Gehrs sold had to be manually operated. The user turned valves at a few stages in the six-hour process. Although turning valves wasn't hard or time-consuming, Gehrs recognized the value of convenience. "This is a very important step for the company," he said, "and for the industry."
For the students, too. Push-button biodiesel had been their vision, but they'd been sidetracked by paperwork and problems.
Now, a search on the Internet promised to rescue their project.
A few days later, the students sat around a speaker phone listening to the voice of their new partner. Gehrs and the team signed no contract. The students sent the Florida businessman a brief letter outlining the work they would do and what they would need. The arrangement was, in Polczynski's words, "a handshake deal."
And a virtual handshake at that.
Gehrs asked the students where he should ship their new reactor. Jamie Formea and Nick Klosinski were grinning. They would not have to order the machine piece by piece, worrying about cost overruns. They could not believe their luck.
But luck, their adviser believed, had nothing to do with it. This was the power of the Web. The ability to create Web sites has become, Polczynski said, "a core competence" required of all entrepreneurs and innovators.
It was the Web that had led Polczynski to a man who made flutes in County Mayo, Ireland. And after he began working as Webmaster for the flute maker, it was the Web that connected them with a company in Pakistan that now supplies half-built instruments for less than the raw materials once cost.
The Irish flute maker and the firm in Pakistan forged their deal without ever meeting. Just like Polczynski's engineering students and their sponsor in Florida.
When the students and their new partner had finished the conference call, Jamie thought of a question they had yet to resolve.
"Where are we going to put this thing?"
Before the reactor arrived and before the students found a place to put it, Gehrs asked them to investigate a new technology called ultrasonic cavitation. The technique, which involves using high-frequency sound to stir chemicals vigorously, could speed up the biodiesel process tenfold.
Jamie's first reaction was: Wow, something with a cool name like that is probably going to be way too expensive.
Team members priced equipment and soon realized that yes, the technology was out of reach given their $2,000 budget. They moved on.
Their new partner made another suggestion, this time one that would save money. Instead of using expensive valves to operate the reactor, why not use sprinkler valves? The students had their doubts.
Sprinkler valves are made to open and shut when water passes through. But they might gum up when confronted by a viscous liquid such as oil or glycerin.
The customer didn't think so, and it was his money. In one sense it was a relief, one decision the students would not have to make. They would give the sprinkler valves a shot.
"If these do work, he's got a hell of a product here," said Billy Daniels. "Twenty-dollar valves could be pretty sweet."
Or a disaster.
Jamie's life, already busy and complicated, was about to hit overdrive. In addition to the senior project, he was carrying a full course load. He was working two part-time jobs: 15 to 20 hours a week with Marquette's Student Safety Programs and 10 to 15 hours a week at Miller Brewing Co. A few days before Christmas, he'd gotten engaged to his girlfriend, Jess, an undergraduate at the University of Illinois.
Now he was responsible for the most crucial task of the project: writing the computer code that would allow customers to push a button and make biodiesel.
A local company, Rockwell Automation Inc., had donated a programmable logic controller -- essentially a micro-computer. The controller was like a baby. It would have to be told what to do every step of the way. Guiding it would be Jamie's code.
Gehrs sent the students the sequence of steps to make biodiesel, and Jamie began translating those steps into commands. The code he used was called ladder logic. Each line was like a rung on a ladder.
Something as simple as pushing the start button required meticulous instructions. Jamie's code needed to tell the controller: 1) there is a "start" button; 2) when "start" has been pressed, turn the heater on; 3) open the recirculation valve; 4) wait two seconds; 5) start the pump to recirculate the oil.
Why the two-second wait? Each valve was essentially a doorway that had to be opened and closed at just the right time. If the valve hesitated just a fraction of a second when you pressed "start," the controller would not know to stop the pump, and a surge of oil would rush straight into a closed valve.
Jamie's code grew into a tall ladder. By the time he finished, it would have 52 rungs.
In mid-February, boxes arrived at the engineering department. The biodiesel reactor from Florida. Now they needed a place to build it.
Members of the engineering department suggested the basement of a building on N. 17th St. called the Academic Services Facility, formerly the old Children's Hospital. Jamie was given a key.
The team gathered the boxes, loaded them on a dolly and wheeled their project across Wisconsin Ave. and up a driveway that didn't look as if it led to much of anything.
The door had no sign. A dim stairway led to the basement. In a hallway at the foot of the stairs lay a large rat trap smeared with a dark brown substance, and not surprisingly it was the first thing the students saw. Near the trap lay a mound of what appeared to be animal droppings.
Jamie stared down. "Holy . . . "
They proceeded down a short hallway to a door that opened into a vast airplane-hangar of a room ringed overhead by a dark tangle of industrial pipes. "Welding lab," read an ancient sign, and on the floor lay sheets of steel pocked with practice welds. A large, orange robotic arm sat at one end of the room, a horizontal band saw at another.
The place looked like a time capsule from past engineering projects. A spool of wire. Abandoned computer monitors. A chalkboard on which someone had written two columns for planning purposes: "To do" and "To get."
"This is friggin' awesome," Jamie said.
"Gentlemen," Billy said, "I think we've struck gold."
For three hours on a Saturday they swept the floor and cleaned the tables. They brought in tool chests, Mountain Dew, a small television. The air compressor chugged and hissed. Most days, a smell like old fish drifted through the room.
Within a few weeks, the students had named their noisy, sour-smelling workshop.