DEPUE — DePue’s environmental students are taking a second stab at the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge — this time, perhaps doubling their changes of winning the prize money with two different project ideas.
Last year, students Adilene Gavina, Servando Moreno and Jacob Aden entered their encapsulation project into the challenge and received recognition as national finalists. The group’s project, which incorporated a way to encapsulate heavy metals within DePue’s Superfund site, was the only finalist from Illinois.
With hopes of being a finalist once again, Gavina and Moreno have paired up to work on a variation of the encapsulation project. This year’s project, called the “Encapsulators,” uses polyurethane to encapsulate phosphorus and phosphate compounds in lake environments.
“We’re trying to keep the momentum going with the Superfund issue in DePue,” Gavina said. “We want to solve the problem and help, so it’s why we decided to do more of it. We were so close last year that we had to give it another try.”
DePue’s environmental group is led by instructor Keith Garcia, who also teaches high school science at DePue. He explained the accumulation of phosphates in lakes and ponds results in algal blooms and accelerated plant growth, which dissolves oxygen in the water and creates changes in the ecosystem.
Servando pointed out Lake DePue is becoming less deep and changing from lake to pond.
“We’re trying to stop this, and the polyurethane is meant to encapsulate the phosphates that speed up this process.” he said.
Students James Yundt, Alejandro Villalobos and Jacob Aden are working on the second project to be entered into the Siemens challenge. The project, called “Thermonators,” examines the use of spent plastics as a possible home fuel source.
The project idea developed after students examined the problem of overflowing plastics in the environment.
“We generate a lot of plastic at home. Most of it doesn’t get recycled and ends up in a landfill, and the question comes, ‘How do we better use it?” Garcia explained. “That led them to look at alternatives and potentially using it as an energy source.”
While the team has until March to submit a final design, it gives students plenty of time to fix current kinks in the project. One of the biggest issues the group is currently working on is finding the right accelerant that would help keep burning going once the plastic melts into liquid form. The group has run into the problem of the melted plastic liquid putting out the flame.
“If we get this to work, it won’t only affect our school and us as a whole, but it could affect the whole world and country,” Yundt said.”Right now it’s just a prototype, but once you get it done, who knows — maybe you could have one in every room, every school. The resources are endless realistically because everyone uses plastic.”
The prize money at stake in the challenge is worth thousands of dollars, which is given to the students to help fund college.
Being a finalist in the challenge would be a great thing for DePue, however, Garcia explained the experiences and work students undergo for the challenge is worth much more than the prize money.
“Looking at last year’s experiences, those experiences in life are few and far between. Even if we didn’t get into the money, I think about the doors it opened for them. The invites we got to go speak, and the questions it opened up. It can be kind of a life changer,” he said. “It’s exciting for them to look and engage in science, and at the field work and lab work, and look at the potential prize, and ultimately come up with something that’s extremely unique and potentially marketable.”
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