White House Science Fair Celebrates Student Research
By Emily Conover (Science Magazine) Sixteen-year-old Sophia Sánchez-Maes is all about algae. The slimy green stuff is an attractive candidate for biofuel production, but Sánchez-Maes wondered why the biofuel startups near her hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico, weren’t having more success. “I’d heard all these stats about how awesome algae was and the potential, but I just wasn’t seeing it in my everyday life,” she says. “I kind of wanted to fix that.” After doing some digging, Sánchez-Maes found that the algae operations near Las Cruces were putting more energy into fuel production than they got out, so she set out to pioneer a new process that produces a positive energy yield.
The result earned Sánchez-Maes a coveted spot in Monday’s White House Science Fair, where more than 100 elementary, middle, and high school students shared their research with President Barack Obama and other government officials. …
Sánchez-Maes began her research by computationally modeling algae growth to determine how biofuel companies could optimize their operations. But, she says, this was “only the tip of the iceberg” for challenges that biofuel operations face. She then worked to develop a process that eliminates the most energy-intensive part of the biofuelmaking process—drying the algae and extracting its lipids. The new method involves “pressure-cooking” the algae and using catalysts to make the process more energy-efficient. But Sánchez-Maes didn’t stop there. She is now studying a type of algae that feeds on contaminants in wastewater, eliminating the need for sunlight that can hold back some biofuel plants. Thanks to a collaboration with researchers at Stanford University and New Mexico State University, among others, a wastewater treatment plant in her hometown is now demoing the technology. “She’s helping to bring the world closer to using algae as a clean, renewable, and even inexhaustible energy source,” Obama said.
Sánchez-Maes wasn’t the only student to focus on biofuels. Eric Koehlmoos, 18, ran a biofuel project from the most unlikely of places—his basement. Because it was a several-hour drive from his home in rural Granville, Iowa, to the nearest lab, he labored mostly alone on his project: the production of ethanol from prairie cordgrass and switchgrass. He found that by treating the grasses with calcium hydroxide, or lime, he could boost ethanol production in certain grasses by 80%, making it a viable alternative to corn-based ethanol. The grasses can grow on land that isn’t suitable for corn or other crops, and byproducts could serve another purpose—cattle feed. To get started on his project, Koehlmoos consulted with a local ethanol plant and researchers at South Dakota State University. “Without them, I probably couldn’t have done my project,” he said. READ MORE and MORE (White House) and MORE (Biotechnology Industry Organization/Bio-tech Now)