March 13, 2013 at 10:16 AM ET
Sara Volz, 17, from Colorado Springs, Colo., joined the quest for practical alternatives to petroleum-based fuels in the seventh grade. Now a high school senior, she may have found an answer in the oily pond scum growing under her bed.
“I was trying to use guided evolution, so artificial selection, to isolate populations of algae cells with abnormally high oil content,” she told NBC News.
The result is a population of algae that produces so much oil, so efficiently, that it bagged the grand prize Tuesday night in the Intel Science Talent Search, an elite science fair. The prize comes with a $100,000 scholarship.
Algae biofuel has long fascinated the green energy community as a promising alternative to other biofuels, such as corn-based ethanol, that take a bite out of the world’s food budget. But a problem has been to get the plants to produce oil at scale cheaply enough to compete with petroleum-based fuel.
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.”
Volz grew (and killed) the algae under her bed, where she has set up a home laboratory with flasks, microscopes, and everything else a young scientist needs. She developed her interest in algae biofuels in the ninth grade as a “perfect fusion” of her passions in alternative energy and biochemistry.
The young scientist should find access to a bigger lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she’ll enroll this fall. The prize money, she said, “will cover a significant chunk of those expenses.”
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, check out his website.