Every year, instead of prepping for prom or hanging out at the mall, thousands of high-school students are busy in labs, basements and classrooms finding fresh solutions to age-old problems. We’ve scoured the country to find the brightest among them, settling on eight teen talents who make Thomas Edison (whose first patented invention didn’t come until the ripe old age of 21) look like a late bloomer.
Take 18-year-old Philip Streich. His method for untangling carbon nanotubes may well pave the way to the creation of a space elevator. Daniel Asturius’s geothermal energy generator could produce three times as much power as a nuclear plant. Samantha Hopkins? After she built her own log cabin at the age of nine, she went on to design a lunar chamber that can grow food without soil, self-heal punctures, and shrink to the size of a backpack for easy portability.
Anne Swift, the founder of Young Inventors International, an organization that helps inventors develop, patent, and license their inventions, says that youth, far from being a handicap, often works to inventors’ advantage. “Young innovators might not realize what is possible, so they tend to dream big,” she says. “They look at it and say, Wow, we can do this.”
Here, meet some of the most promising youth to hit the invention scene, and find out which institutions of higher learning will lay claim to their genius.
Invention: Industrial-Strength Geothermal Generator Quadrilingual by age three, Daniel Asturias showed his innovative spark early on. He set up contraptions around the house and pursued unusual hobbies like building chain-mail armor and pruning bonsai trees. He’s also self-taught in differential equations, theoretical physics and thermoacoustics. This year, Asturias and his teammate Isaac Harwell designed an underwater geothermal complex for geyser-like heat vents. The prospective system would have 150 generators placed over the vents, and each one could produce at least 45 megawatts of energy, adding up to some 6.8 gigawattsa or as much energy as three nuclear power plants. Little work has been done using these ocean vents because they sit on fault lines miles below the surface, making them expensive to access. Asturias’s design has no moving parts and requires little maintenance, which would eliminate repair trips. The project won first place and $10,000 at this year’s prestigious Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation high-school invention competition. GPA: 3.9; weighted 4.45
SAT Score: 2200 (out of 2400)
Patents: One pending
College: He’s been offered full tuition to the University of Texas.
Invention: Solvent to Isolate Carbon Nanotubes Carbon nanotubes are one hundred thousandths the thickness of a strand of hair, stronger than steel, and could potentially be used to build things like an elevator into space and bulletproof clothing. The problem is that nanotubes tend to clump together in tightly wound bundles, which zaps their strength and conductivity. For years, scientists assumed that the bundles were impossible to dissolve using a liquid solution, so they relied on a tedious chemical technique to only partially untangle them. That is, until Philip Streich, an 18-year-old farm boy, came up with a better way. He invented his own proprietary solvent mixture and watched the clumps quickly untangle. Now, three years later, Streich has five pending patents in nanoscience, which have won him countless science contests, not to mention more than $200,000 in prizes and scholarship money. When he’s not putting in 60-hour workweeks at a lab at the University of Wisconsin or managing his start-up nanotech company Graphene Solutions, he’s working on the farm, where his family raises sheep, chickens and cows. GPA: Homeschooled
SAT Score: 2400
Patents: Five pending
College: He’ll enter Harvard University as an undergraduate, although he’s already taken enough college courses for a few bachelor of science degrees.
Invention: Pedal-Powered Grain-Threshing Machine At age 10, Tyler Moser made an Edison phonograph. At 15, he started his own computer assembly and repair business. This year, he led a team to a divisional championship at the FIRST Robotics Competition, founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen, with a game-playing ‘bot. His other invention, a sorghum-and millet-threshing machine for developing countries, won a $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam initiative, designed to cultivate young inventors. The machine’s brilliance is in its simplicityait’s bicycle-powered and can generate enough rpm to increase a farmer’s output 10-fold without using electricity, a luxury in poor regions where sorghum crops are popular, like West Africa. aHe’s hit on the important thing inventions need to do and frequently don’t,a Kamen says, awhich is to fully understand the needs of the potential user.a GPA: Homeschooled
Patents: None yet
College: He plans to apply to college next year. In the meantime, he’s mentoring a robotics team while taking classes at a community college.
Invention: Cancer Drug with Fewer Side Effects Math whiz and oboe player Preya Shah began studying DNA in her free time as a high-school freshman. Sophomore year was spent developing a biocompatible scaffold on which to grow skin cells for healing wounds. Junior year, more DNA experiments. Senior year: After spending 40-hour-plus weeks in the lab at Stony Brook University in New York all summer and working every day after school, the Setauket, New York, native has designed and synthesized a new chemotherapy drug to fight tumors with fewer side effects. aIt uses one molecule that fights the cancer on two different fronts,a Shah says. aIt delivers a one-two punch.a Her hard work has paid off with a $20,000 scholarship from the Intel Science Talent Search. GPA: 4.0; weighted 4.2
SAT Score: 2400
Patents: None so far, although her university lab may apply for one
College recruitment:She was accepted to Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale, Princeton and Columbia, and is going to Harvard.
Invention: Solar Generator Turns Mist into Water As a seven-year-old, instead of cleaning up a spill, Javier FernÃ¡ndez-Han built a robot to do it for him. Now he wants to save the world through invention. Last year, FernÃ¡ndez-Han founded the nonprofit Inventors Without Borders for high-school students to solve problems around the world. His latest inventions include a solar- and geothermal-powered generator that transforms humid air into water for drought-prone regions and an algae bioreactor that can make cheap electricity in places that lack access to the grid. The algae reactor hooks up to an oven vent, mixing the carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide exhaust with manure. This speeds up algae growth and, in turn, the algae converts the manure mixture into carbon-rich biofuel that can be used to power machines like tractors. The design won this year’s $20,000 top prize at the Invent Your World Challenge sponsored by Ashoka GenV and the Lemelson Foundation. GPA: Homeschooled
Patents: He plans to put the design on the Web for everyone to access.
College: He’s visiting Boston soon to check out Olin College of Engineering, MIT and Harvard.
Invention: Novel Solar Cells that Beat Commercial Options William Yuan is nationally ranked in the top 1 percent of ACT scores among high-school seniorsaand he’s just entering the eighth grade. He fell in love with science in the third grade and by the fourth grade he was immersed in oceanography, nanoscience and renewable energy. At age 11, he began studying nanoimaging at Portland State University, where he hit upon his idea for a three-dimensional solar cell that absorbs both visible and ultraviolet light by trapping it between two concave surfaces. Unsurprisingly, Yuan has won more than 20 academic awards, including this year’s Genius Award from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and a $25,000 scholarship from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. When he’s not working to end the world’s energy woes, Yuan hones his chess skills, which have led him to three successive Oregon state chess titles. GPA: 4.0
ACT Score: 33 (out of 36)
Patents: One provisional
College: He is eyeing the University of California at Berkeley.
Invention: Aeroponic Food Chamber for the Moon aSamantha has always been building things,a says her mentor, astronomy teacher Lynne Zielinski. At age nine, Hopkins made a doghouse-size log cabin by herself. In the seventh grade, she developed a serious interest in astronomy and began studying the cosmos from the telescope in her bedroom. By senior year, she and her classmate Michael Dzakovich had designed a lunar greenhouse that grows crops with air and mist instead of soil in a sealed, flexible compartment. The especially innovative part of their invention is a type of fluid sometimes used as a shock absorber in cars that hardens when exposed to a magnetic field. The fluid would let astronauts firm up the portable structure after inflating it. Hopkins’s invention won second place and $6,000 at this year’s Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Awards. GPA: 3.7; weighted 4.6
ACT Score: 31
Patents: One pending
College: She’s been accepted to Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon, among others, but Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science is her top pick.
Invention: Nasal Spray that Regulates Sugar Levels in Diabetics Michael Vawter was 10 when he came up with his first invention, the RoboSwitch, a device that uses light, motion and temperature sensors to automatically turn off the lights when you exit the room. aI was getting in trouble for leaving the lights on, so naturally I decided to build a robot to turn them off when I wasn’t there,a he says. By age 16, he had designed a nanoscopic nasal spray he calls the Nano Mist that uses protein receptors to detect excess sugar in the blood and then releases the appropriate amount of insulin to stave off a diabetic attack. The Nano Mist would eliminate the need for insulin shots. His design nabbed second place and $20,000 at the 2007 ExploraVision competition run by the National Science Teachers Association to foster innovation among students. This year, he mentored a team that developed the Cold Conqueror, which uses similar technology to reduce the risk of catching a cold by 90 percent. GPA: 4.0
SAT Score: 2080
Patents: Three provisional
College: He has had interest from five colleges, including Carnegie Mellon and Ohio State, but he’s still mulling his options.