Sara Volz has lived and breathed her science project on algae biofuels since ninth grade — in fact, she has even slept the research, in a loft bed just above her home lab lined with flasks of experimental cultures.
That self-driven dedication helped earn 17-year-old Volz, a senior at Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, the top honors in the Intel Science Talent Search, a national competition that features a $100,000 award.
Her independent venture into renewable energy set her apart from 1,700 applicants who were narrowed to 40 finalists who went before judges last week in Washington, D.C. Her research explored a low-cost method for creating algae populations with higher-than-average oil content — a key step toward making the biofuel economically feasible.
Volz used a process called “artificial selection” in which she introduced an herbicide that forces cells to adapt, by producing cells that contain more oil, or die. “It’s like a weed acquiring resistance to herbicide,” she said. “But in this case, I designed the selection pressure so the resulting population will produce something we want — oil.”
Research in algae biofuels has been ongoing, but production cost has been a stumbling block. Volz experimented with an inexpensive process that produced algae cells containing about seven times the oil of the average cells. The project required that Volz keep the specimens on a schedule of 16 hours of light and eight hours of darkness. Her own sleep habits came to follow that routine. “I sleep on my algae’s light cycle,” she said.
She said she still has work to do to confirm her analyses and determine if the process can work on a larger scale, but she added that her work shows a lot of potential for the process in general. The daughter of a veterinarian and a journalist, Volz always has been guided by a “need to understand something to make it a part of my world.”
The prize money and her additional scholarships will just about cover college tuition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.