National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

Shanita Wilburn

Tuskegee University
Tuskegee, AL
B.S. Chemical Engineering, May 2010

NASA Academy Research Project:
Biofuels as an Alternative Fuel Source for Aviation

Principal Investigator:
Dr. Bilal M. McDowell Bomani

Warrenton, GA


Personal Statement

My interest in the NASA Glenn Academy is the Space Processes and Experiments Division. During the summer of 2009, I was a participant in the NASA Science and Technology Institute (NSTI) at NASA Glenn Research Center. The research I performed was within the Space Processes and Experiments Division; producing biodiesel fuel. The title of my research was “Analysis of Salt Tolerant Plants and Algae: Extraction and Characterization of Lipids from Chaetomorpha and Halophytes for More Efficient Jet Fuel“. The purpose of this project was to determine the percent yield of extracted lipids from salt water plants in order to determine the feasibility of efficiently producing transportation fuel. Both leaves and seeds from plants as well as algae biomass were studied. Three species were characterized: Salicornia, Chaetomorpha, and Codium. For the plant leaves and algae biomass, acid-catalyzed transesterification was used, and for the plant seeds, base-catalyzed transesterification was used. Transesterification is the process of converting a larger ester into a smaller ester with the same hydrocarbon chain on one side of the ester. It can be used as a step for the analysis of the hydrocarbon chain. The resultant methyl esters were then characterized using Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectroscopy.

I had not given biofuels a thought until I had experience producing it. It is, in fact, becoming a very important research field for the reason of global warming. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find oil reserves. Meanwhile, the demand for oil is increasing. What’s oil used for? Its main use is to provide fuel for the vehicles that we drive on a daily basis. Unfortunately, when these fuels are burned, they emit carbon dioxide which causes global warming. Therefore, the two problems are that the desired quantity of oil is becoming more difficult to obtain, and when it is burned it brings about global warming. I intend on developing a fuel that is not only safe to the environment, but also has many resources in the developmental efforts.

Currently, as a Research Associate in the NASA Glenn Academy, my focus is on climate adaptation on fresh and salt water algae and halophytes. In the past, algae has been said to have the most lipid extract. The goal is to test the percent extract on each species of algae and halophytes to determine which would be more efficient to use as aviation fuel in the future. My plan after the summer is to attend graduate school and possibly research more and collaborate with others who have and are now studying the production and safety of the use of the surrogate jet fuel.


Along with the community service projects performed, I have been responsible for activities involving the Department of Human Resources such as sponsoring families for Thanksgiving and Christmas to those unfortunate families. As a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated, I recently held the office of Parliamentarian. Outside of the sorority my interest has been to establish a relationship with the Jerusalem House, a home providing support and permanent housing to adults suffering from homelessness and HIV/AIDS. During the time, volunteering services included the assistance of program development and being there to prepare monthly meals. Also, as a member of Omega Chi Epsilon, the Chemical Engineering Honor’s Society, my colleagues and I held tutorial sessions for underclass chemical engineering students. In addition, I am a NASA Student Ambassador. Within this prestigious community, I have the opportunity to participate in panels, network, and be a mentor to NASA interns and others in school.


Singing, I do all the time, but during my free time I love to play basketball and possibly participate in softball. I have always been an athlete. Even though I can’t swim yet, it’s very thrilling to go inner tube surfing. Community service activities are always a good way to enjoy myself and relax; painting houses, playing bingo with the elderly, etc. Most of the community service is done within my sorority.


I would like to show my gratitude to Dr. Deidre Paris-Michael for supporting me throughout my undergrad years and for introducing me to the NASA community along with the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corporation and the NASA Science and Technology Institute (NSTI). A special thanks goes to Dr. Michael J. Kulis for the mentorship and guidance provided. I would also like to thank Dr. M. David Kankam and Dr. Bilal Bomani for the opportunity to illustrate my abilities within the NASA Academy.