Canada’s Austin Wang won first prize at Intel ISEF 2016 for developing a microbial fuel cell that converts organic waste into energy, while runners-up awards went to America’s Syamantak Payra and Kathy Liu for their respective improvements to knee braces and batteries.
Han Jie (Austin) Wang, an 18 year old from Vancouver, British Columbia, sees a long life ahead, and he’s determined to have a healthy planet on which to live it.
For the past four years, Wang has been looking for a way to reduce carbon emissions by improving the efficiency of microbial fuel cells (MFCs).
MFCs are bioelectrochemical systems that convert chemical energy into electrical energy by exploiting the electron transferring capabilities of special microorganisms.
For his Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) research project, Wang identified specific genes in genetically enhanced E.coli bacteria that enabled them to generate power efficiently.
“I am working with a device that uses bacteria to break down waste and generate electricity,” he said.
Wang’s system can produce significantly more power than existing MFC processes at a cost that is competitive with solar energy. He believes this will make MFCs commercially viable.
In turn, he anticipates that MFCs will play a part in both reducing carbon emissions and providing power for third world and developing nations.
The budding microbiologist won top honors for this research at the 2016 Intel ISEF: the Gordon E. Moore Award and a $75,000 scholarship.
Two runners-up, Syamantak Payra, 15, of Friendswood, Texas, and Kathy Liu, 17, of Salt Lake City, Utah, received Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards and $50,000 scholarships for their innovative research.
Payra developed a low-cost electronically-aided knee brace that allows an individual with a weakened leg to walk more naturally.
According to the teen’s research, more than 6 million people in the U.S. alone require Knee-Ankle-Foot-Orthoses (KAFOs) due to injury or disease. These devices lock the knee joint to allow wearers to stand or walk without leg collapse.
“However, since normal walking requires knee bending, conventional fixed knee KAFOs cause health problems: gait deviations, hip/back pain, joint/muscle damage, and excess energy expenditure,” said Payra.
To address this problem, Payra modified a standard brace, adding a gyroscopically-oriented sensor on the healthy leg to control a robotically-powered knee brace on the weak leg.
When Payra tested his prototype with two individuals partially disabled by polio, it almost immediately restored a more natural gait and increased mobility.
Liu took her research in a different direction. Concerned about recent reports of fires caused by batteries in planes, cell phones and hoverboards, Liu set out to find a solution.
She succeeded in developing an alternative battery component that not only improves battery safety, but also performance.
“We can replace the flammable liquids in batteries with a solid polymer to drastically improve safety and also enable batteries that pack even more power,” she explained.
In her research, Lui evaluated more than 90 different potential solid electrolyte candidates. Based on tests with charred luffa fruit, she developed and tested a novel mix of table sugar and a boron hydrogen compound that had an ionic conductivity nearly 100 times better than the most popularly investigated alternative.
Lui’s new rechargeable battery is smaller and more lightweight, without the risk of fire inherent in lithium-ion batteries.
This research could result in more efficient, low-cost and sustainable energy storage.
Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators
“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, vice president in Human Resources, director of Corporate Affairs at Intel Corporation, and president of the Intel Foundation.
“This international science and engineering exhibition is an excellent example of what can be achieved when students from different backgrounds, perspectives and geographies come together to share ideas and solutions.”
This year, 1,760 young scientists attended Intel ISEF after advancing from 419 affiliate fairs in 77 countries, regions and territories around the globe.
In addition to prizes for the top winners, roughly 600 finalists received awards and prizes for inspired research, including 20 “Best of Category” winners, each of whom received a $5,000 prize.
The Intel Foundation also awarded a $1,000 grant to each winner’s school and to the affiliated fair they represent.
In all, approximately $4 million in prizes was awarded.
“Our top winners this year – Wang, Payra and Lui – clearly demonstrate that age has no bearing on your ability to conduct research and come up with solutions to important problems,” said Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of Society for Science & the Public.
“We congratulate them not only for their success, but on their dedication and hard work. They and the rest of the Intel ISEF finalists are the rising stars of STEM, and we look forward to watching them pursue their passions and in turn make the world a better place for future generations.”