Obama schooled on algae, honeybees at science fair 

Source: Robin Bravender, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The first rule of the White House science fair is: No taking robots or go-karts for a spin on the South Lawn. The second: Don’t explode anything. And third: No using a marshmallow air cannon in the house (unless President Obama gets to shoot it first).

“We had to put these in place based on the previous science fairs,” the president said today. He announced the rules during the annual event at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where students flood in to show off their scientific inventions and discoveries.

Exhibits included everything from a hiccup-curing lollipop to prosthetic dog limbs. Students also presented projects aimed at cleaning up air and water sources, advancing renewable energy technologies and revitalizing honeybee populations.

Obama — who toured the exhibits along with top administration officials, Bill Nye the “Science Guy” and others — called the fifth annual fair “the most fun event of the year” or “at least in the top three.” Obama noted that the robots he’s seen have gotten smarter every year. “We are keeping an eye on that, by the way,” he joked.

One project that wowed both Obama and Nye this year came from 16-year-old Sophia Sánchez-Maes of Las Cruces, N.M. She’s been working to convert algae into biofuel in a way that doesn’t waste energy.

“I am creating an energy infrastructure for the nation based on algae,” said Sánchez-Maes. “We create more energy than we take, which is the first time that’s really been demonstrated.”

Nye exclaimed, “That sounds like a violation of the second law of thermodynamics, young woman! What do you mean you create more energy than you take in?”

Sánchez-Maes designed a process that uses algae to fuel an energy-positive wastewater treatment system. She uses a certain type of algae found in the hot springs at Yellowstone National Park that can withstand harsh conditions. “It takes out contaminants better than the anaerobic bacteria that we’re currently using,” she said.

“She’s helping to bring the world closer to using algae as a clean, renewable and even inexhaustible energy source,” Obama said of Sánchez-Maes’ project. “And it’s already being tested in her hometown, the process that she’s developing. It is amazing.”

Kelly Charley, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Farmington, N.M., presented a solar-powered radiation system to heat buildings. She designed the heating system after noticing that communities without electricity often build fires to keep warm, which can generate harmful particle pollution.

Fourteen-year-old Sahil Doshi of Pittsburgh designed a battery that uses carbon dioxide and waste materials to generate electricity. Bluyé DeMessie, 18, from Cincinnati, Ohio, developed a new way to use agricultural waste to remove pollutants from water after being surprised by the lack of clean water when he visited relatives in Ethiopia.

A team of three students from North Carolina exhibited their efforts to help revitalize honeybee populations. They’ve been making presentations to the public about the harmful impacts some chemicals can have on honeybee populations and what that can mean for humans and other animals.

“Every year, I walk out smarter than I walked in, because these young people have something to teach all of us — not just about batteries, or attacking cancer cells, or how to build a working robot or a rocket,” Obama said. “These young scientists and engineers teach us something beyond the specific topics that they’re exploring. They teach us how to question assumptions, to wonder why something is the way it is and how we can make it better.”

Click here for a full list of exhibits at today’s fair.