With resumes that list achievements like “built wallpaper that turns noise into energy” and “devised a nuclear-fusion reactor,” these 10 inventive teens are headed to America’s best colleges. After that? It’s off to save the world- or maybe invent a new one.
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High school: Davidson Academy, Reno, Nev.
Invention: Weapons detector If you think teens lack ambition, meet Taylor Wilson. Before he learned to drive, he taught himself how to make a fusion reactor in his parent’s garage. The one he built last year to detect nuclear and chemical threats works so well that the Department of Homeland Security has tapped him to construct a bigger version of it. Wilson, a lanky, shaggy-haired 16-year-old, fashioned his cylindrical prototype from stainless steel and filled it with a gas made of deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen. To test a suspicious object, he places it inside the cylinder’s chamber and flips a switch. Electricity runs along a wire cage inside to smash together deuterium molecules and send a powerful neutron beam hurtling toward the sample. When the beam strikes, the sample gives up its chemical identity in seconds. On turning his folks’ garage into a nuclear lab, Wilson says, aThere’s the occasional explosion, but I think my parents have gotten over that by now.a This fall, when he’s not foiling terrorist plots, he plans to finally get his driver’s license. College: University of California at Berkeley
High school: General Douglas MacArthur High School, Levittown, N.Y.
Invention: Solar panels supercharged with quantum dots In high school, Chaimaa Makoudi was elected president of the environmental club and helped start the school’s first recycling program. But she didn’t really consider inventing anything until she learned that installing solar panels on her family’s four-bedroom house wouldn’t shave very much money off the electric bill. In researching why, she discovered quantum dots, tiny semiconducting crystals, and wondered if they could harness solar power. A few months later, Makoudi had a prototype that generated 5 percent more electricity than a conventional solar panel, thanks to the quantum dots she embedded inside. She also found intriguing evidence for an unproven theory that smaller quantum dots are more efficient than bigger ones. The budding inventor plans to publish her findings later this year. Makoudi, whose family moved to the U.S. from Morocco in 2004, will be the first in her family to attend college when she enrolls this fall. Her major? Engineering. College: Cooper Union
High school: North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Durham, N.C.
Invention: Magnetic space sail Nikita Khlystov is a born builder. As a kid, he designed and assembled countless model cars. He even managed to make a working grandfather clock out of plastic building blocks. By his sophomore year he was designing and machining brake pedals for the Duke University motor-racing team as the only high-school student on the squad. This year, he’s moved on to fuel-efficient propulsion systems for spaceships. Khlystov led the design of a magnetic solar sail that could be used to propel astronauts and robots through the cosmos. To address the problem of getting a big object into orbit, he and his team made the mile-long metal sail foldable so that it could be more easily stashed inside a spaceship. The design was a finalist in the 2010 Conrad Foundation Spirit of Innovation competition. Not only an inventor, Khlystov is also an avid photographer, a chess player and a German-spelling-bee master. College: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
High school: Ward Melville High School, East Setauket, N.Y.
Invention: Bioreactor that turns algae into fuel You don’t need to study chemical engineering during childhood to become a brilliant inventor, but it helps. A case in point is Nevin Daniel. At age 10, he read his engineer parents’ textbooks for fun, and this year he’s designed a bioreactor that can efficiently transform seaweed into hydrogen, which can later be turned into fuel. Daniel knew that algae naturally turns carbon dioxide into oxygen and hydrogen when exposed to sunlight. The trick is getting the plant to produce more hydrogen. So his concept calls for algae genetically altered with an E. coli gene. In his design, the special algae fills plastic tubes, which are then pumped with water, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and sunshine to drive the reaction. Hydrogen gas bubbles to the top of the reactor, where it can easily be collected. When he’s not studying better ways to produce alternative fuels, Daniel writes for his school newspaper and plays the viola in the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York. College: Sights set on the Ivy League
High school: Methacton High School, Eagleville, Pa.
Invention: Urine test for colon cancer Benjamin Song decided early in life that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his parents, both doctors. (His father treats cancer patients, and his mother researches liver cancer.) In the sixth grade, he studied the effects of antibiotics on ear infections. In ninth grade, he looked at whether the herpes virus can damage DNA while in hibernation. This year, he developed a test for colon cancer that detects faulty DNA in urine. Working with a friend, Quan Jack Chen, Song modified existing DNA tests to detect tiny gene segments drawn out of the blood and into the urine by the kidneys. Their diagnostic takes three days, but early trials have shown it to be more accurate than other blood and stool tests. And it’s the first urine test to detect cancer growing outside the urinary tract. Song plans to develop urine tests for other cancers next year, although his mother insists that his homework come first: aI say, aIf you don’t do well in school, you can’t go to the lab.’ a College: Eyeing MIT
High school: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Tech, Alexandria, Va.
Invention: Energy-harvesting wallpaper Where most people hear noiseascreeching subway trains, say, or honking car hornsaDaniel Wang hears wasted energy. Working with three other students, he has designed a type of wallpaper that converts sound into electricity. Wang and his team embedded piezoelectric sensors, crystals that produce electricity when compressed by sound waves, into an inch-thick wall panel. One end of the sensors harvests sound from the room, while prongs at the back of the sensors transfer the electricity to copper plates for storage. Wang estimates that a paneled room big enough to house a ship engine could produce more than 3 kilowatts (enough to power a central-air-conditioning unit) when exposed to 115 decibels (as loud as a chainsaw). The next step is to build a prototype and put it to the test. If it worksaand Wang is confident that it willasound paper, he believes, could one day wind up anywhere you’d expect high-decibel action, from football stadiums to subways. College: Dartmouth College
High school: McCurdy High School, Espanola, N.M.
Invention: 911 for buried miners At 2:48 a.m. on August 6, 2007, Utah’s Crandall Canyon coal mine collapsed. Six miners were trapped inside. About 500 miles away, in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Sophie Swingle watched the news unfold on TV. When she learned that trapped miners were unable to communicate with rescue workers, she decided to devise a solution to keep that from happening again. Teaching herself electrical engineering over the course of the next year, Swingle designed a handheld, low-frequency device that can transmit a distress signal 500 feetaeven through coal, a notoriously tough medium for wireless signals to penetrate. Swingle, who is an award-winning rifle and pistol marksman and has a black belt in tae kwon do, has successfully tested several prototypes in a mine near her home. Following her recent immersion in do-it-yourself electrical engineering, she has decided to pursue the subject full time in college this fall. College: University of San Diego
High school: Albuquerque Academy, Albuquerque, N.M.
Invention: Interplanetary navigation system Erika DeBenedictis is way, way into space. In the sixth grade, her favorite book was Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the 10th Dimension. In seventh grade, her computer-scientist dad taught her how to program. As a junior in high school, she wrote an algorithm to locate asteroids. This year, she won the $100,000 first-place prize in the annual Intel Science Talent Search for navigation software designed to help astronauts explore the cosmos using as little fuel as possible. Her program, uploaded to a spacecraft powered by high-energy ion thrusters, would continuously survey the gravitational landscape to pinpoint the most efficient route to Mars. aLow-energy paths and an ion drive isn’t a combination people have explored before,a she explains. As for her own trajectory, she plans to double major in physics and computer science at college this fall. College: California Institute of Technology
High school: Waiakea High School, Hilo, Hawaii
Invention: Computer simulator for flu outbreaks During the height of the H1N1 flu scare last summer, Nolan Kamitaki, though only a junior, found himself fielding tough questions about the potential severity of the outbreak. Kamitaki, who had built a computer model to simulate the spread of the disease, was in a unique position to answer them. Kamitaki’s software, which won a first-place prize of $3,000 at this year’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, accurately predicts how swine flu might propagate through a town of 10,000 people based on social networks (something most other disease simulators neglect) and then determines who should get antiviral medicine like Tamiflu. The best way to slow the epidemic? According to his model, treat the youngest people in the town first; because they are the most mobile and social. Public health isn’t Kamitaki’s only scientific interest. In his spare time, he also audits classes on molecular genetics at MIT. College: Harvard University
High school: Amador Valley High School, Pleasanton, Calif.
Invention: Tumor detector Frustrated by watching his aunt and a close friend struggle with cancer, Hari Rallapalli began researching the disease, looking for better ways to treat it. Tumors, he learned, form when stem cells mutate and produce adult cells that divide uncontrollably. To document this process, Rallapalli devised a cell tracker using a glowing protein extracted from jellyfish. Spliced into the DNA of tumor-forming stem cells, the protein persists as the cells multiply, making them easy to spot. He has also invented a $400 microscope to view such glowing cells. (Similar scopes can cost up to $45,000.) The design allows users to remotely view the marked proteins, without exposure to the x-rays or ultraviolet light sometimes used to illuminate the cells. Rallapalli will continue to perfect his fluorescent-tracking method this fall at college, with the hopes of one day using it to help cure cancer. aFluorescence is my thing,a he says. College: University of California at Davis