In between pep rallies and history tests, these 10 brainy students are refining cancer treatments, cleaning up car exhaust systems, and improving communication between humans and robots.
When Alison Dana Bick was in middle school, a downpour swamped the streets of her hometown and flooded its well. Public officials warned that flooding might have carried sewage into the water supply. “My friend called to ask if there was a way to check the safety of the tap water,” Bick says. When a Google search revealed that there wasn’t any fast and easy household test, she decided to create one. Four years later, she completed work on a cellphone application that determines the concentration of bacteria in a photographed sample of water. Unlike current water-testing kits that take 18 hours to evaluate the full chemical and bacterial content of a sample, Bick’s cellphone test provides a simple answer—contaminated or safe to drink—immediately. Bick knew that Colilert-18, one of the most common water-quality testing agents, turned yellow when mixed with bacteria-contaminated water; the more the bacteria, the darker the hue. So she developed an algorithm to read and analyze the yellow-pixel intensity in a low-resolution photo of the chemical water sample. She is currently collaborating with the Millburn Short Hills chapter of the American Red Cross to field-test the system.
College: Bick starts her freshman year at Princeton University this fall. She plans to study chemical engineering.
High School: Los Alamos High School, Los Alamos, N.M.
Invention: Portable, solar-powered desalination unit
Ryan Erickson may live on a high desert mesa, but he has big plans for the ocean. Last year, he began to develop an interest in large desalination projects—which remove salt and other minerals from seawater to make it drinkable—in countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Australia. But he soon learned that no one had built a portable, automated, affordable desalination system that also treats seawater for harmful bacteria—although millions of people, including those living in coastal nations, lack safe drinking water. His solar-powered device, a three-foot cube easily carried by two people, relies on readily available materials: sand, charcoal, and plastic bottles. Saltwater is filtered through layers of sand and charcoal before entering a boiling chamber. The steam is cooled and collected on a condenser coil and then exposed to a SteriPEN, which kills harmful bacteria with ultraviolet light. Other portable desalination systems are less sophisticated and can remove only salt from the water, not other harmful contaminants. Erickson’s next step is to redesign the system to make it even more compact.
College: This fall, Erickson will enter the University of California, San Diego, where he will study electrical engineering.
Other teenagers, upon receiving their learner’s permit, think only about driving to the mall. But behind the wheel for the first time, 17-year-old Param Jaggi couldn’t stop thinking about exhaust. Ever since, he has been working on a novel carbon-dioxide capture system that fits on the end of a tailpipe. In Jaggi’s design, exhaust enters a chamber filled with algae, which uses light from an LED and CO2 in photosynthesis. The by-products of the process, water and oxygen, are eventually released out of a canister-shaped attachment on the exhaust pipe. Other systems in development capture CO2 inside filters or chemicals, which must be disposed of. Jaggi’s algae system only grows more algae. The device (patent pending) won the EPA’s 2011 Patrick H. Hurd Sustainability Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair this May. The algae in it currently needs to be emptied every three to five months, but Jaggi is working on tweaking light conditions and chemicals to stretch it to six months. The extra time would match it with the average oil-change interval so that drivers could take care of both at the same time.
College: Jaggi will start at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, this fall, where he plans to major in pre-med.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.