Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Turning Styrofoam into a Water Filter, Courtesy of an 8th Grade Science Team

We’ve talked about a lot of ways to reuse and recycle foam, but a team of student scientists from Ohio may have figured out the best method yet: recycling styrofoam into water filters. It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but this team of three eighth-graders developed a process to convert styrofoam into activated carbon, the key ingredient in most water filters. At the Google Science Fair they won the Scientific American Innovator Award--and they’ve already begun the process of patenting their idea.

When Luke Clay’s family went on a trip to Central America he was disheartened to see the styrofoam littering the beaches. After returning and sharing the experience with his teammates, Julia Bray and Ashton Cofer, they decided to do something about it.

They started by analyzing styrofoam and realized that it was composed of over 92% carbon. They hypothesized that they could convert it to activated carbon, which could then be used to filter water. With a looming global water crisis threatening millions worldwide, this invention can help solve two global problems by reducing waste while producing inexpensive water filters. According to the team, the US produces over two billion pounds of styrofoam each year which winds up filling an incredible 25% of landfill space.

As Cofer describes in a TED Talk, the team met with a lot of failure: “We knew that if we were successful, we would be helping the environment and making the world a better place. So we kept trying and failing and trying and failing. We were so ready to give up. But then it happened.”

They continued to fine-tune their process, comparing the results of their water filters with commercially available ones and testing it in real world situations. Since these teens have already shown their willingness to persevere against all obstacles, it seems like it’s just a matter of time before this type of recycling becomes mainstream. We will be following their progress and hope to play a role in the future solutions that emerge.

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