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Science fair projects with buzz

What do a self-balancing trike, an emergency water filtration system and a virtual cane that senses obstacles such as overhangs and branches have in common?

They're all inventions found in the musty halls of high school science fairs, only these projects have some oomph behind them in the form of funding and mentors that could make them a hit in the real world.

That trike, for example, makes the joy of riding around town on what look like lawn chairs on three wheels accessible to people with physical limitations, according to the team behind it at Lynden High School in Lynden, Wash.

The concept is a suspension system that controls the stability of the trike, the group explains in a note relayed to me Wednesday from the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam initiative.

"At a stop, the trike will be very stable (no lean available). As the rider's balance and skill level increase, the trike will have the capability to lean up to 20 degrees," the note reads. 

Leaning allows steering of the trike. The stability suspension system would run about $700 and could be adapted to fit most recumbent bikes.

The project was one of 16 chosen this year by the initiative to receive up to $10,000 in grant funding and support from real-world inventors in industry and academia. Grantees were announced Wednesday.

The water filtration system uses a filter made of locally available materials such as sand, bamboo, cotton, coconut husk and palm bark, and can provide up to 20 liters of filtered water an hour, stored in a 200-liter tank.

The system should reduce the risk of water-borne bacteria such as E. coli, note the inventors at Northeast High School in Oakland Park, Fla. 

"It can accommodate up to 50 people with drinking water (at a rate of four liters per person) as well as ten people with showers (at a rate of 20 liters per person) in any 15-hour period," according to the team.

That cane, an invention selected in 2009 and given continuing funding in 2010, could "help blind/visually impaired individuals navigate their environments safely and confidently," notes the team at The Bromfield School in Harvard, Mass.

It uses distance-sensing technology to gather information on its surroundings and relays it to the user through audio and tactile feedback such as vibrations. The cane detects walls and stairways like a conventional cane, but it also picks up on things like a branch that could whack a head.

A team of inventors at West Salem High School in Oregon got continuing funding this year for a pressure-sensitive grip for writing utensils that "will help teach the students not to press or squeeze too hard while writing to prevent poor writing habits that can cause muscle injury," the team notes.

For the full list of this year's participants and more information about InvenTeam initiative, check out the Lemelson-MIT Program.

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John Roach is a contributing writer for