Thursday, June 21, 2018
Education

Teen's biofuel invention turns algae into fuel

For a fifth-grade science fair, Evie Sobczak found that the acid in fruit could power clocks; she connected a cut-up orange to a clock with wire and watched it tick. In seventh grade, she generated power by engineering paddles that could harness wind. And in eighth grade, she started a project that eventually would become her passion: She wanted to grow algae and turn it into biofuel.

After four years of tinkering in her garage for about an hour each day, Sobczak (pronounced sob-chek) has finally figured it out. Her algae-to-fuel project won first place and best in category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, beating 1,600 other finalists from 70 countries. The Intel ISEF is one of the largest and most prestigious science fairs in the world.

"When I got there, I looked at all the projects and they were amazing, but I trusted that my project has a lot of capabilities to be used in the real world, so I thought I had a good chance of winning," said Sobczak, a rising senior at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg.

The project's official title: Algae to Oil via Photoautotrophic Cultivation and Osmotic Sonication. In less dizzying terms, Sobczak cultivated, harvested and extracted algae oils and turned them into biofuel.

Biofuel is made by taking a mass — such as grass, sugarcane or corn — and converting it to fuel. The process leaves out harmful chemicals, like chloroform and hexane, which are used in making biodiesel and other types of fuel. Also, the use of algae biofuel reduces reliance on fossil fuels.

Some research shows that algae fuel could one day be a significant part of the nation's energy supply. But the cost of producing it remains high and scientists are working on ways to bring it down.

"All these Floridians think that algae is bad because it causes red tide, but it can be used as a positive to help our environment and our economy," Sobczak said.

Among a trove of awards and scholarships from the Intel ISEF, Sobczak was given the opportunity to visit NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, where workers control the Mars rover, for three days this month.

"(Sobczak) will get a behind-the-scenes experience of how JPL works: how we conceive and design missions, how we build and operate spacecraft, and then she'll meet scientists who will speak about how they use spacecraft to discover new science," said Larry Bergman, a program manager at the lab.

The world's attention has been on Mars because of the Curiosity rover landing and the Intel ISEF took that into consideration when selecting a prominent research lab to send a student to, Bergman said. In the past, students have gone to places like CERN, the nuclear research lab in Switzerland notable for having the world's largest particle accelerator.

"Going to the JPL is not something that everyone can experience, so I am very excited to be able to go," Sobczak said. "I can't wait to see them and talk to them about my project."

Also this summer, she will volunteer in the postpartum unit at St. Petersburg General Hospital and will be involved with a beach restoration project.

"She's motivated, she's driven, she's a grinder," said her mom, Lila Sobczak. "Until she finds the answer, she doesn't stop," she said.

Sobczak fell in love with science just by doing her schoolwork at Shorecrest. She says her teachers inspired her by getting her involved with science fairs early on.

"Evie has two things going for her," said David Hyink, her biology teacher. "She loves science and she has amazing enthusiasm for it. I think those are the two key ingredients to be able to do this."

Sobczak hopes to get into Columbia University or MIT to major in biochemical engineering. She's excited to work in a college lab where she can expand her algae project. Sobczak's dream job: working with other engineers to make algae a biofuel in the United States.

Between devoting countless hours to her algae project, keeping up with schoolwork and trying to hold on to her social life, Sobczak gets frazzled. But to that she simply says: "Stress means you're doing a lot of work, so it has to be a good thing."

Sabrina Rocco can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8862.

Comments
Hernando school officials set to discuss replacement, sever ties after firing Superintendent Lori Romano

Hernando school officials set to discuss replacement, sever ties after firing Superintendent Lori Romano

BROOKSVILLE — With dust still settling from the Hernando County School Board’s close vote to fire Superintendent Lori Romano — and days before her time as head of the district runs out — school officials and community members seem to be already movin...
Published: 06/20/18
Hernando students score slightly better on state tests

Hernando students score slightly better on state tests

BROOKSVILLE — As schools and districts across the state await their 2018 grades from the Florida Department of Education, the standardized test scores that factor into those ratings and were dropped last week show slight gains in Hernando County.The ...
Published: 06/20/18
Budget analysis projects deficit, deepened by security costs, for Pasco schools in coming year

Budget analysis projects deficit, deepened by security costs, for Pasco schools in coming year

An early analysis of the Pasco County School District’s 2018-2019 budget projects a deficit of more than a million dollars, with more than half of that coming from a shortfall in funding new school safety requirements.Costs to hire and train 53 new s...
Published: 06/20/18
New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

ST. PETERSBURG — Originally pitched as a nine- or 10-story, 550-bed dorm for the overcrowded University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, USF’s latest residence hall project will likely look much different by the time it’s done.For starters, it...
Published: 06/20/18
Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Am I missing something in the — pardon the expression — brouhaha over the renaming of the University of South Florida Sun Dome to the Yuengling Center? In trading a college arena’s longtime name for that of a big-name beer brewed ne...
Published: 06/20/18

Hillsborough school district will pursue two kinds of local taxes

TAMPA — Hillsborough County School District officials took an important step Tuesday toward asking the voters to pay higher taxes for schools that, they say, are not getting enough money from the state.The board voted 5-0 to submit a tax referendum r...
Published: 06/19/18
Updated: 06/20/18
Ethan Hooper steps up with a salute to teachers

Ethan Hooper steps up with a salute to teachers

Editor’s note: Ethan Hooper wrote today’s column to give Ernest Hooper Father’s Day off.In May, I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in elementary education, and I recently secured a job as a first-grade teacher with Orang...
Published: 06/18/18
AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

Since 2002, the AP World History course has covered thousands of years of human activity around the planet, starting 10,000 years back. But now the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, wants to cut out most of that history and st...
Published: 06/16/18
School board races attract new faces

School board races attract new faces

TAMPA — When long-time Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes resigned this month from the board to run for the State House of Representatives, the decision affected more than just her seat in west Hillsborough’s District 1.It also coul...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/17/18
Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

Hillsborough schools tax referendum is unlikely for November

TAMPA — Money that the Hillsborough County School District needs to build schools and replace air conditioners might be farther from reach, thanks to a new state law and a bureaucratic process required before the voters can decide on a tax referendum...
Published: 06/14/18