This Week @ UC San Diego

October 18, 2011 | By Susan Brown

Fueling Hope

Chemistry lecturer teaches high school students how to power combustion engine using coffee grounds—but hopes they will also learn love for university life


Long lines at campus coffee carts suggest that more than a few of us fuel our mornings with caffeine. This summer, a group of students turned the spent grounds from all those cups into real fuel and used it to power a combustion engine.

Skip Pomeroy, a lecturer in chemistry, brought more than a dozen students from Castle Park High School to UC San Diego to learn how to make biodiesel.

“As a way to get started, we used coffee grounds, which are easy to get on this campus,” Pomeroy said. “And while coffee is a silly thing from which to extract fuel, from a global economic point of view, what they learned by extracting oils from coffee are the same techniques they would use to extract oils from algae—a feedstock that I think could provide enough material for the fuel needs of the whole world.”


Pomeroy hoped that practicality would appeal to the students. “Biodiesel represents a commodity that you could sell,” he said. “We actually use the fuel to run a generator, so they can see, when they’re all done, that they actually made a commercially viable product from start to finish.”

But the chemistry of extracting and refining oils for fuel is only part of what Pomeroy hoped the students would discover. He also wanted to introduce them to university life, and to help them imagine a place for themselves here.

“I think La Jolla seemed foreign to them,” Pomeroy said. “Now, they know the campus extremely well. They’re very comfortable, which I think is the first step towards getting students like these interested in UC San Diego.”

Pomeroy remembers the gulf he faced between his own neighborhood and campus when he arrived here as an undergraduate about 30 years ago.

“I chose Castle Park because I came from Castle Park High School. I grew up down there,” Pomeroy said. “When I came back and had an opportunity to work here, I wanted to give back to the community.”

Pomeroy sees the program as an opportunity to reach out to students from diverse backgrounds. “It’s nice to have a relationship with a community that I already know,” he said, “but the other important part about Castle Park is that it’s south of Interstate 8, a population that is underrepresented here on this campus and in science programs in general.”


Following Pomeroy’s example, these students too will reach back to their own middle and elementary schools this fall. With their confidence and enthusiasm, they hope to foster an interest in science among these younger students.

Most of this summer’s visitors will be seniors in high school next year, but one has already joined the campus community. Andrew Ceseña, who enrolled in Revelle College this fall, says he chose UC San Diego primarily for the excellence of the science programs. “It’s something that has always intrigued me, and I’ve seen how this campus has an extraordinary program,” he said. “It’s allowed me, throughout 10th grade to now, a lot of opportunities like this over the summers. Ever since, I’ve been very eager to join this institution.”

Want to keep up with what is happening at UC San Diego?
Subscribe to This Week @ UCSD. It's free!