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Teen's biofuel invention turns algae into fuel

Evie Sobczak, 16, a rising senior at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, holds her Cellulose Blaster invention in her garage lab. The device extracts lipids from algae, turning the oils into biofuel without chemicals. Sobczak’s process uses very little energy.
Evie Sobczak, 16, a rising senior at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, holds her Cellulose Blaster invention in her garage lab. The device extracts lipids from algae, turning the oils into biofuel without chemicals. Sobczak’s process uses very little energy.
Published Jun. 14, 2013

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 srocco@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8862.

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