Awesome 17-year-old geek wins $100,000 for her bedroom biofuel lab
Sara Volz’s long-term goal, she says, is to understand the universe. But in the shorter term, the 17-year-old is working on developing algae that create biofuels more efficiently. In her home lab — it’s under her loft bed — she’s been artificially selecting for algae that produce higher oil content, with the idea that these will produce biofuel more cheaply and efficiently. Not only is that an awesome project to have in your bedroom, it won her the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search contest and the accompanying $100,000 prize.
NBC News explains why her super-oily algae have an advantage in the push to make commercially viable algae-based biofuels:
Other researchers have approached the problem by tweaking the algae genome or selecting the prime environmental conditions for algae growth. Volz’s approach, she said, is different and lower cost. It relies on an herbicide that kills algae cells with low levels of an enzyme crucial to making oil.
“The idea is, if you introduce this chemical, you kill everything with really low oil production,” she explained. “What you are left with is a population of cells with very high oil production.”
We salute anyone who decides to live with tubes of algae under their bed in service of the greater good. (And Volz is so hardcore, she’s also decided to sleep on the same light cycle as her little green charges.) But we also salute Volz for being an all-around awesome geek: She’s field captain of her high school’s Science Olympiad Team and captain of the Science Bowl team. Also, she likes improv and musical theater. She’s going to MIT next year, and, other incoming MIT freshmen, if we were you, we would totally request her as a roommate.