Every year, the Intel Science Talent Search honors brilliant high school students for their contributions to the worlds of math and science. Last year, Jack Andraka took the prize for his cheap, accurate cancer sensor. This time around, 17-year-old Sara Volz won for her research on algae biofuels.
Algae fuel has long been the holy grail for biofuel enthusiasts, mainly because it doesn’t require the land mass of other crops. But so far, companies have found it challenging to make algae biofuel economically feasible–combine all the labor and operational costs of scaling up production, and it can’t compete with petroleum. Volz attempted in her project to find a way to make algae fuel work.
“I used artificial selection to isolate populations of algae cells with high oil content with the idea that they can make these different cell lines to keep on producing lots of oil,” she explains. Volz added a chemical to her algae cells that that would kill all those with low oil production, leaving only the algae that pumps out oil efficiently. “I’m finding that the population that seems to be producing lots of oils seem to be resistant to the chemical I added,” she says.
Volz did some of her work in labs, but much of the research was done in her bedroom, where she keeps a home lab under her loft bed (and sleeps on the algae’s cycle). “I have equipment and I keep hazardous chemicals downstairs,” she says, “It’s pretty functional.”
The high school student will use her $100,000 in Intel prize money to help fund her college education. She plans on attending MIT in the fall. Volz isn’t yet thinking about commercializing her research–it’s still in the very early stages–but she does plan on doing more exploratory work on algae cell lines.