Students win $10K for deriving fuel from algae

Courtesy photoThe team stands outside the Statehouse holding certificates from the state Legislature recognizing their award winning work and contribution to the community. They are back row, from left, Isabel Chae, Emily Then, Benedict Nouel, Andy Morales, Marla Hilderbrand-Chae, Robert Suriel; and front row, from left, Alexis Gonzalez and Yasmerlin Ortega. 

A team of seven savvy students at Greater Lawrence Technical High School won a $10,000 scholarship from the children's book publishing company, Scholastic.

The scholarship was awarded to the team for winning the Air & Climate portion of the company's annual Lexus Eco Challenge, a national scholarship competition that asks students across the country to tackle environmental issues in their communities.

According to Andy Morales, a 17-year-old junior at Greater Lawrence Technical High School, the students came up with the idea for their award winning project by answering a question the school posed to them in their integrated classes at the end of their sophomore year.

The question was "how do you power the future?" The students answered that in their project by figuring out a way to power everyday machines without increasing carbon emissions. They did this by deriving biofuel from algae, rather than using fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels — such as the petroleum used to fuel cars and airplanes — release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which some scientists say are a contributing factor to climate change and global warming.

In about nine months, the team designed a bioreactor that could break down the cell walls of algae with sound waves, then extracted five milliliters of biofuel from the algae which they used to power landscaping machines.

"The work for me is super exciting because I worked in the field of science and science is where you do original research and you get an adrenaline rush," said Marla Hilderbrand-Chae, the life science and chemistry teacher who oversaw the project. She added that the students designed the bioreactor with the help of a $200,000 grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

"This group that entered the competition really refined the extraction to where we got oil and then participated in a lot of things to get the word out in the community," she added.

The students have raised awareness of the importance of their work, making a video they shared at school, posting information about their project on the school's website and even presenting their work at the Statehouse.

And one of the winning teammates wants to use the recognition that came along with this scholarship to inspire other Hispanic girls, like herself, to achieve their dreams.

"I feel accomplished because my family came here as immigrants and I feel like girls that are Hispanic or Latina can do exactly what we did," said Emily Then, a 17-year-old junior who wants to attend Tufts University. "I am going to college and I am going to save up the money to pay for college."

Meanwhile, another 17-year-old junior in the group, Isabel Chae said, "Honestly the best part about this is not the money or the recognition that comes with winning the award, but the fact that we are teenagers at a vocational high school and we were still able to do serious, original scientific research and develop the kind of protocol that we could later patent or publish."

The students will be competing in the final round of the scholarship competition for a chance to win $30,000. Scholastic will announce the winners halfway through April.



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