Teens take home huge awards for their research

The 2016 Intel ISEF competition rewarded research for making better fuel cells, batteries and leg braces

Top Intel ISEF winners Kathy Liu (left), Austin Wang (center) and Syamantak Payra are cheered on after receiving their big awards. Austin won the $75,000 top prize. Kathy and Syamantak each won an award worth $50,000.  

April Rietze/SSP

PHOENIX, Ariz. — In a week when this southwestern city sweltered in the heat, teen researchers were pulling down awards for very cool science. Top winners included a teen looking to improve devices that use microbes to convert organic wastes into electricity. Another developed safer, cheaper and more eco-friendly batteries. Yet another showed how to cheaply modify off-the-shelf leg braces to make a patient’s knees flex easily.

Together, these three teens garnered $175,000. That was just a small share of the roughly $4 million in prize money given out here, this week, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Created by Society for Science & the Public and sponsored by Intel, this year’s competition brought together more than 1,750 students. They came from more than 75 countries, regions and territories. (SSP also publishes Science News for Students.) More than one-third of all finalists received some sort of award for their research.

“Intel congratulates this year’s winners and hopes that their work will inspire other young innovators to apply their curiosity and ingenuity to today’s global challenges,” said Rosalind Hudnell. She’s president of the Intel Foundation.

Han Jie (Austin) Wang, 18, hails from Vancouver, Canada. He won the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore award. This top prize is named for Intel’s cofounder. Austin attends David Thompson Secondary School. For his project, he studied the microbes used in devices called microbial fuel cells. They can turn wastes into electricity.

Austin identified more than 100 genes associated with the transfer of electrons within bacteria as they take in energy and grow. Many of these genes were never before recognized, the teen says. He figured out which were best at helping the microbes make energy. By tapping the bacteria that host these genes, he boosted power production in his fuel cells by a whopping 20 times.

Austin also developed a way to make the fuel cells get to work faster. Typically, a new fuel cell only makes electricity once its microbes have formed a slime — or biofilm — on the system’s electrodes, the teen explains. That usually takes a few months. But Austin coated his electrodes with a plastic material that he developed. It helped the microbes create a film more quickly. With that, the fuel cells began making electricity in just a few hours or days.

“This is unbelievable,” Austin said right after receiving his award. “I feel like I’m going to wake up from this dream any minute.”

Kathy Liu’s research also involved power production. The 17-year-old attends West High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her project claimed one of Intel ISEF’s two $50,000 awards.

Batteries tend to contain an electrolyte, a liquid which transfers an electrical current through the device. That liquid tends to be corrosive and sometimes flammable. Kathy came up with a way to replace it with a putty-like paste. It’s so viscous that her batteries won’t leak. Designers won’t need to put such thick walls on these batteries, to resist breakage. That, in turn, means her devices can be much lighter in weight.

And because her pasty electrolyte is based on plain old table sugar, it’s fairly cheap to make. Another benefit: Gram for gram, the new material holds more energy than regular electrolytes. In Kathy’s research, she made small coin-sized batteries like those found in watches and calculators. The new pasty electrolyte in each of them costs only about 10 cents to make, she estimates. And unlike many batteries, hers could hold a full charge even after recharging them more than 1,000 times.

Syamantak Payra also picked up a $50,000 award for his research. The 15-year-old attends Clear Brook High School in Friendswood, Texas. The device he developed could help people who can’t walk well due to a disease or injury.

About 6 million people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, spinal injury, polio or other problems walk using a leg brace, the teen notes. Those devices typically don’t bend at the knee. They’re also expensive, often costing up to $100,000. And patients need several weeks of training to use them properly.

Syamantak’s solution is both inexpensive and easy to use. He started with an off-the-shelf brace that only costs about $2,000. To this he added a motor-driven actuator. (That component looks a lot like the shock absorber on a car.) Its motor moves a piston in and out, which flexes the knee. A small computer that clips to the user’s belt or slips into a pocket controls that motor. That computer, in turn, receives signals from a sensor that reports the position of the opposite leg.

Together, all of the parts in Syamantak’s system will add only about $500 to the cost of the starting brace. Plus, the new system can be used with less than an hour of training, the teen notes. He designed the software in the system’s computer to learn how the patient walks. That means that the more someone uses it, the better it performs.

“Our top winners this year – Austin, Syamantak and Kathy – clearly demonstrate that age has no bearing on your ability to conduct research and come up with solutions to important problems,” said Maya Ajmera. She’s president of Society for Science & the Public. “We congratulate them,” she says, “not only for their success but on their dedication and hard work.”

Other major award winners

Other “best of category” awards in this year’s competition, worth $5,000 each, include:

  • Animal Science: River Grace, 16, of West Shore Junior/Senior High School in Melbourne, Fla.
  • Behavioral and Social Sciences: Rajeev Jha, 18, of President Theodore Roosevelt High School in Honolulu, Hawaii.
  • Biochemistry: Edward Kim, 16, of Midway High School in Waco, Texas.
  • Biomedical and Health Sciences: Jiwoo Lee, 16, of Academy for Medical Science Technology in Hackensack, N.J.
  • Biomedical Engineering: Luiz da Silva Borges, 17, of Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology in Aquidauana, Brazil.
  • Cellular and Molecular Biology: Marissa Sumathipala, 15, of Broad Run High School in Ashburn, Va.
  • Chemistry: Kathryn Lawrence, 17, and Katherine Younglove, 18, of Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo.
  • Computational Biology and Bioinformatics: Swetha Revanur, 17, of Evergreen Valley High School in San Jose, Calif.
  • Earth and Environmental Sciences: Natalie Bush, 17, of Saint Josephs Academy in Baton Rouge, La.
  • Energy, Physical: Tiasha Joardar, 17, of Plano West Senior High School in Plano, Texas.
  • Engineering Mechanics: Takahiro Ichige, 18, of Chiba Municipal Chiba High School in Chiba-City, Japan.
  • Environmental Engineering: Wyatt Pontius, 18, of Academy of Science in Sterling, Va.
  • Materials Science: Nicky Wojtania, 16, of Plano West Senior High School in Plano, Texas.
  • Mathematics: Pei-Hsuan Chang, 17, of Taipei Municipal LiShan High School in Taipei City, Chinese Taipei.
  • Physics and Astronomy: Camille Yoke, 18, of Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, Va.
  • Plant Sciences: Dennis Drewnik, 17, of Sisler High School in Winnipeg, Canada.
  • Robotics and Intelligent Machines: Simone Braunstein, 18, of Dalton School in New York, N.Y
  • Systems Software: Charles Noyes, 17, of Villa Park High School in Villa Park, Calif.
  • Translational Medical Science: Brennan Clark, 18, and Prashant Godishala, 18, of Breck School in Golden Valley, Minn.

More than a dozen of these “best of category” winners also earned trips overseas. Some will visit research labs in China or India. Others will visit science fairs or attend youth science forums in Europe.

ISEF’s finalists are “are the rising stars of science, technology, engineering and math,” says Ajmera. “We look forward to watching them pursue their passions and in turn make the world a better place for future generations.”

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

acid    A chemical that releases hydrogen ions when dissolved in a solution. Acids have a sour taste and have a pH ranking of less than 7.0.

actuator    A motor that provides power to make something happen. It can use any source of power, from water to electricity to a hand crank.

battery    A device that can convert chemical energy into electrical energy.

biofilm   A gooey community of different types of microbes that essentially glues itself to some solid surface. Living in a biofilm is one way microbes protect themselves from stressful agents (such as poisons) in their environment.

electricity    A flow of charge, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.

electrode    (in chemistry) Materials that serve as an anode or cathode, attracting negatively or positively charged particles. Or things that serve as electric conductors through which current leaves or enters something else.

electrolyte     A non-metallic liquid or solid that conducts ions — electrically charged atoms or molecules — to carry electrical charges. (Certain minerals in blood or other bodily fluids can serve as the ions that move to carry a charge.) Electrolytes also can serve as the ions that move positive charges within a battery.  

electron   A negatively charged particle, usually found orbiting the outer regions of an atom; also, the carrier of electricity within solids. 

engineering  The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

fuel cell A device that converts chemical energy into electrical energy. The most common fuel is hydrogen, which emits only water vapor as a byproduct.

gene   (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for producing a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

ingenuity   A term for skill, cleverness or inventiveness.

mechanics   The study of how things move.

microbe    Short for microorganism. A living thing that is too small to see with the unaided eye, including bacteria, some fungi and many other organisms such as amoebas. Most consist of a single cell.

microbial fuel cell A device that relies on microbes to initiate a chemical reaction to generate electricity. These devices can use waste materials, including sewage and manure, to produce energy cleanly. (see also fuel cell)

organic  (in chemistry) An adjective that indicates something is carbon-containing; a term that relates to the chemicals that make up living organisms.

piston     The moving component of an engine, pump or other device that transfers force or allows motion.

sensor   A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly.

Society for Science and the Public (or SSP) A nonprofit organization created in 1921 and based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, SSP has been not only promoting public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: The Intel Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). SSP also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

software  The mathematical instructions that direct a computer’s hardware, including its processor, to perform certain operations.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Health & Medicine