High School: Homeschool, Conroe, Texas
Invention: All-in-one waste, food and energy system
While visiting the 2005 World Exposition in Japan, Javier Fernandez-Han and his family came across a mock refugee camp staged by Doctors Without Borders. “I didn’t know people lived in those situations, without drinkable water, food and shelter,” he says. “I realized I wanted to focus on systems for sustainable living.” In 2009, at the age of 15, he began to integrate existing and modified devices such as a water pump and a flush latrine into an all-in-one system for refugee camps and small villages in the developing world. Among other functions, his invention treats sewage, turns harmful gases including methane into fuel for algae, and produces oxygen and algae biomass that can feed livestock. Later that year, he won the Ashoka Lemelson Excellence Award for the device. Soon he began to wonder: If he created this system by himself, what could a whole team of inventors do? He founded two groups, Inventors Without Borders and Innovation Foundry, in which teenagers collaborate on problems such as hunger, lack of access to education, and poor air quality.
College: Fernandez-Han hopes to study industrial design at Stanford University.
At the age of nine, Gabriel See joined his high school’s robotics team. By 11, he had mastered every high-school science and math course available in his district and enrolled in undergraduate and graduate courses at the University of Washington. See had worked with several commercial liquid-handling systems—devices that use robotic arms and motorized pipettes to measure, transfer, and control liquid in precise quantities—but knew that the equipment’s $10,000–$50,000 price tag made them unaffordable to all but the best-endowed labs. So, at the university’s pathology lab, he invented a simple system that uses Lego Mindstorm programmable construction toys. Within a year, he finished the system using firmware from the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Lab and software that he wrote himself. It can transfer as little as five microliters (slightly larger than the tip of a ballpoint pen), the amount demanded by such projects as DNA assembly. The system costs just $750, making it affordable to small universities and start-up companies. The device won the silver medal in MIT’s 2009 iGEM competition.
College: See still has to learn to drive and to go to prom, but he’s already hoping to study computational biology at MIT.
High School: Cheyenne Mountain High School, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Invention: Improved efficiency of algae derived biofuel
Sara Volz insists she’s not some “crunchy” Colorado teenager. She hikes, skis, and camps with her family, but she’d rather spend her time conducting experiments. Volz decided at an early age that she wanted to help do away with fossil-fuel consumption, and in the seventh grade, began studying alternative fuels. As a high-school freshman, she began testing hemp oil as a potential biofuel source before reading several journal articles about algae-based fuel. After talking local alternative-fuel energy companies and labs into familiarizing her with the field and equipment, she set up a photobioreactor and a novel medium in which to grow algae at home. She has manipulated the growth conditions to limit the algae’s supply of nitrogen, and suspects that the manipulation increases transcription of an enzyme that enables the algae to accumulate more oil. “The whole idea is so appealing,” she says, “making oil from pond scum.” Next she will test whether extra copies of the enzyme’s genes cause the algae to produce more oil, which would mean higher yields of oil per acre.
College: Volz wants to attend an Ivy League or small liberal-arts school with a strong research focus. She plans to study biochemistry or molecular biology.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.