After hearing about alternative energy in his ninth-grade agriculture class at Clover High School, Flint Holbrook was so enticed he spent the afternoon researching how to brew a batch of biofuel at home.
He did not know then that his interest would lead him to the cutting edge of research in an area that some believe might transform how the world produces energy.
"I just decided, 'I'm going to make some biodiesel,'" Holbrook said. "It didn't look all that difficult. It turned into somewhat of a long science project."
By the time he graduated, neighbors were running his fuel in vehicles and Holbrook was presenting results at conferences across the southeast.
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Now 20, Holbrook is a sophomore at Oklahoma State University where he is experimenting with microalgae, an energy source drawing more attention as researchers seek to tap its potential.
Among thousands of algae strains that have been identified, scientists see an array of uses from extracting naturally produced oil to growing algae to convert carbon to oxygen. Because algae grow fast and don't need farmland, some energy companies consider it more promising than corn- and soy-based alternative fuels. Harvesting and processing the fuel has so far proved tough and expensive.
Private firms, as well as the federal Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, are plowing tens of millions of dollars into trying to solve that.
At Oklahoma State, Holbrook is testing microalgae's potential to clean waste water. Holbrook sees such research as a potential boon for famers, pointing to enormous ponds of animal waste surrounding hog farms in which algae could be grown.
"In my mind, in the future we'll see these ponds of microalgae that not only produce oil," he said, "but they mitigate the carbon dioxide that our society emits."
"I'm kind of the low man on the totem pole ... I would like to be a part of the future of microalgae."
'Beyond the average'
When Holbrook was in high school and told his parents about his plans to make fuel, they were "kind of hesitant at first," his mother Beverly said. "We were kind of afraid he might blow up the shop."
They eventually agreed, so long as Holbrook used his own money.
"We thought that might discourage him, because he's tight as bark on a tree," Beverly said.
It didn't. Holbrook saved cash from jobs and birthdays, scoured Craigslist and eBay for cheap parts and acquired used vegetable oil from restaurants. He brewed the first few gallons of fuel in Dr Pepper bottles. By 11th grade, he had built a processor.
"I never thought he'd be able to do it," his father, also Flint, said. "But then I come home one day and he's got a conical steel tank he's dragging around."
"He was well beyond the average teenager," said Jimmy Killian, a co-owner of Killian Service Center in Clover who tested Holbrook's fuel.
The work became Holbrook's school project for the Future Farmers of America club. It caught people's attention, and Holbrook was asked to present his work at state, regional and national conferences.
"He could relate to anyone and converse with them in a way to make them feel comfortable and understood," said Robert Johnson, Clover High career and technical education director.
Honors followed, including a Merrill Lynch Young Entrepreneur Award and a FFA Alternative Fuel Proficiency award.
"I consider Flint to be the most outstanding FFA member I have ever known over my professional career of more than 50 years," said S.C. FFA Public Affairs Director John Parris, a friend of the Holbrooks who tapped Holbrook to be state president. "It's just not expected of a student to do research in the ninth grade."
By graduation, Holbrook had been accepted to eight universities and amassed $100,000 in scholarships.
An early start
Holbrook started on his path early.
"When he was real little he always wanted to get into the electrical sockets," his father said.
His father, an agricultural engineer, built nonworking sockets that 2-year-old Holbrook played with for hours.
On church youth trips to Chuck E. Cheese's, while other children were playing, Holbrook crawled under rides to examine the hydraulics.
"He was never satisfied just being a kid," Beverly said. "He just wanted to learn everything he could. I can't tell you how many appliances he burned up."
His parents nurtured his ingenuity.
"We tried not to put limits on Flint and (his brother) Nathan," Beverly said.
Whether it was LEGOs or an appliance, Holbrook was engrossed with whatever he was working on, she said. When it wouldn't work, it frustrated him.
"We coached him to walk away when it gets to you," Beverly said.
During his first year at Oklahoma State, Holbrook was contacted by a North Carolina firm interested in producing algae. The owners had read an article about him in the trade magazine The Progressive Farmer titled "Biodiesel Man."
Clearwater Enterprises Inc. in Elizabethtown, N.C., offered him a summer job in their alternative energy division. General manager Larry Barnhart said Holbrook was "integral" in building a system that's producing algae. Holbrook is on staff as an adviser while in school, Barnhart said.
While uncertain of what he'll do after graduating, Holbrook sees himself helping farmers in an industry he's passionate about.
"Without agriculture we wouldn't have our food, our clothes or our houses," he said.
Nurhan Dunford, an OSU associate professor and oil-seed chemist working with Holbrook, expects big things from him.
"Flint is not a typical academic," Dunford said. "... He's very creative. He's always working on applications in the field. He doesn't stop there. He's always taking the next step. If he decides to stay in this field, he has great potential."