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Innovations

17-year-old Paige Brown invents device to clean polluted streams

April 12, 2016
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

17-year-old Paige Brown won the Global Good Prize at this year's Intel Science Talent Search for her novel way to pull harmful phosphorus from streams. Photo: Intel Science Talent Search

17-year-old Paige Brown won the Global Good Prize at this year’s Intel Science Talent Search for her novel way to pull harmful phosphorus from streams. Photo: Intel Science Talent Search

Chris Weller writes for techinsider.io about 17-year-old Paige Brown, of Bangor, Maine, who created a novel way to pull harmful phosphorus from her local streams – an idea that won her the Global Good Prize and $150,000 in college tuition at this year’s Intel Science Talent Search (STS).

After extracting a gel called “alginate” from some seaweed, Ms. Brown mixed the substance with some aluminum and magnesium and then balled it up into multiple globs to be placed inside the mouths of dollar-store claw hair clips, all held steady by a block of foam.

Ms. Brown’s winning design targets a destructive process known as “eutrophication,” in which a nutrient (in this case phosphorous) seeps from organic materials like dead leaves and grass clippings and contaminates an ecosystem in the aftermath of a storm. This can generate excess algae growth in water.

Seaweed alginate used in Brown's experiment. Photo: Paige Brown

Seaweed alginate used in Brown’s experiment. Photo: Paige Brown

Over time, those extra algae consume the oxygen that normally would be available to nearby plants and animals. It can also produce a toxin that is harmful to humans when consumed. Ultimately, entire species of fish and plants could die simply because one nutrient never got properly removed.

To test her device, Brown measured how much phosphorus her invention could pull from a handful of water samples from streams in Bangor. For about a day, she’d leave the device in samples with differing levels of phosphorus. The seaweed gel absorbed the nutrient.

Afterward, she used a spectrophotometer — a machine on loan from her high school chemistry teacher that shines a light through water to check its chemical makeup — to gauge her invention’s success.

After the seven-month experiment ended, she discovered that her design, which she calls a “scaffold,” had absorbed 127 mg of phosphorus per gram of scaffold — all for just $3 worth of materials.

Clumps of seaweed alginate sit inside the teeth of the hair clips, protected by small pieces of fabric. Photo: Paige Brown

Clumps of seaweed alginate sit inside the teeth of the hair clips, protected by small pieces of fabric. Photo: Paige Brown

“So it means that each gram of scaffold can theoretically clean 254 liters of water contaminated with 0.5 mg/L phosphorus,” she says, “which would be very contaminated water to begin with.”

Another upside to Ms. Brown’s design is that the scaffolds are biodegradable. You could plant a used scaffold into the ground, allowing it to act as a slow-release capsule that lets phosphorus re-enter the soil and fertilize crops. The device plays two important roles: It acts first as a filter for local water supplies and second as a replacement for phosphorus-based fertilizers.

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