Because Styrofoam can't easily be recycled, it often ends up in the trash. But a group of middle school students from Folsom, California, designed a digester that uses bacteria to eat Styrofoam—and turns it into energy and biodegradable plastic.
"It's a big problem in the world right now," says 13-year-old Emily Miner, one of the inventors of the tool, called the Polystyrenator. "A lot of Styrofoam is getting into waterways and affecting the environment negatively. Our robotics team thought it was a big problem that needed to be addressed."
The students dug through the latest research, and combined what they found into their own process. Now, their idea is a semifinalist in the First Lego League Global Innovation Award, an X-Prize sponsored competition that asks young students to create solutions for global challenges.
"It's not the traditional science fair, where you see something on a poster board," says Sarah Stray, the innovation award manager for First, an organization founded by Dean Kamen to get kids interested in science, technology, and engineering. (Lego later cofounded the competition.) "This is the real deal." The winner of last years' competition now has a working prototype; others have patented their designs.
For students, it's a chance to solve real problems while learning skills they probably don't get in school. "It's really hitting those 21st-century learning skills that we talk so much about—we are not giving students answers to anything," says Stray. "What we are doing is asking them to solve a problem. Anytime you're solving a problem, you're applying those broad thinking skills and the engineering/design process . . . skills that you're not taught in a traditional academic setting."
Miner and her teammates hope to bring the Polystyrenator to life. "It made me realize that even though we're all very young, it doesn't matter how young you are," she says. "You can still make a difference in the world."
Out of thousands of teams from around the world, 20 semifinalist teams will now compete for a $20,000 prize. Here's a selection of some of the our favorite ideas from the contest:
When a group of Bay Area middle school students looked through their school's trash, recycling, and compost bins, they found that only about half of the waste ended up in the right bin. They tested a sorting contest to motivate students to do better, but accuracy only improved to 58%. Next, they designed a robot to help: A Raspberry Pi-based device takes a picture of a piece of trash, then uses photo classification to tell someone which bin to use. The tool can improve accuracy to more than 90%.
After noticing how many chip bags ended up in the trash at their Florida middle school, a group of seventh and eighth graders invented Chipsulation, a type of insulation made from shredded bags. Because the bags contain polyethylene, they can't easily be recycled. But as insulation, in tests, the students found that chip bags were both more effective and cheaper than the standard material used in construction.
A team of fifth and sixth grade girls created a concept for a home device that turns food scraps and waste into fuel for natural gas appliances. Microorganisms break down the food, making methane gas that can be used in stoves, furnaces, or hot water heaters.
Plastic bags, made from polyethylene plastic, can't be recycled in most home recycling bins. When they are recycled—as from the bins in front of grocery stores—they're often "downcycled" into low-grade plastic products like recycled lumber. A team of Canadian students has a different solution: a plastic "composter" that uses bacteria to biodegrade polyethylene over a 15-week period. The process creates CO2, which can be reused in other products, and biomass that can be sold as fertilizer.
On farms, hay bales are often wrapped in 8 to 10 layers of plastic film before the hay is stored outside—helping preserve the nutrition in the hay for animals, but adding trash. A group of eighth and ninth graders from a rural community in Canada designed a bioplastic made from plant starch and fiber. After it's used, the bioplastic can break down into an edible product, or be used as fertilizer.
Plastic packaging usually ends up in the landfill, but a group of five students designed a new type of packaging that can be reused. Made from a material called shape memory polymer (SMP)—which can be easily flattened with heat or light, but later pop back into the original shape—the students envision that packages could be sent back to manufacturers, and used in an endless loop.
A team of sixth graders took on the problem of six-pack rings that kill marine animals when the animals are trapped, or when they eat pieces of the plastic. Their solution: plastic that dissolves when it's submerged in water, or exposed to rain.
Another team of students, now eighth graders, has been working together for three years, and now has a patent-pending process for dealing with Styrofoam waste. Their low-temperature system turns the Styrofoam into activated carbon, which can then be used in water filters.
In theory, bioplastics should be compostable. But when a group of Canadian students did research at their local composting plant, they learned that most bioplastics failed tests there, and can cause damage to equipment and costs from lost time. They modified a recipe for a decomposing plastic that can be composted—and then turned it into doggy bags, so pet owners can start composting their dog poop and the bags it ends up in.
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