"Prosperity always inflates the imprudent, and worldly peace weakens the vigor of the soul." - Peter Abelard

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Shocking Discovery

This story was originally published in the June 16th issue of The Wellesley Townsman.

From left: WHS Biology teacher Kenneth Bateman stands with juniors Reid Williamson, Dan Wilkins, Andres Kwart, and Jacob Mingolla. Courtesy photo.
Bacteria. Mud. Water.

These are things that conjure up images of a stagnant pond or perhaps a garbage dump. An enterprising team of Wellesley High School students, however, saw something else.

Using local swamp mud filled with bacteria, WHS juniors Andres Kwart, Daniel Wilkins, Jacob Mingolla, and Reid Williamson ingeniously constructed a working microbial fuel cell, an invention that has won them substantial accolades.

The four students, at the urging of Kwart’s biology teacher, Kenneth Bateman, entered the Siemens “We Can Change The World Challenge” in April.

A few weeks later, the team found out they were state finalists.

“The fact that we were nominated as being the best in Massachusetts really came as a surprise to all of us. None of us had seen it coming. Since we had such a late start, we assumed we would be the underdogs in the competition,” said Kwart.

The Siemens Challenge, which draws hundreds of applications from teams of high school students across the country,  “…encourages student teams to identify an energy-related issue that has local, national and global implications and provide a viable solution,” according to the challenge’s website.

“It was the boys who really wanted to do the experiment. There was very little suggestion from any teacher,” said Bateman.

The microbial fuel cell designed by the WHS team attacked the problem of finding alternative, “green” sources of energy, and the fuel cell is both simple and cost-effective.

The team’s major breakthrough was their use of inexpensive graphite electrodes and dialysis tubing to capture electricity in lieu of platinum electrodes and semi-permeable membranes. This saved the team hundreds of dollars and flew in the face of what established science said was necessary for the experiment to work.

“The moment we received those first signs of voltage, we all knew we had successfully created something that could possibly play a part in our futures,” said Kwart.

As Kwart explained, the fuel cell works through a simple mechanism. Anaerobic bacteria (in the form of swamp mud) are fed glucose as fuel, which they process into energy through fermentation. Graphite electrodes capture this energy, and a voltmeter records the electrical output. The cell emits no more pollutants than healthy bacteria in a normal environment.

The maximum voltage the team recorded was about 340 millivolts, a significant, if not substantial, amount of electricity.

“We feel as though this project could be a substantial step in the production of something very significant in our increasingly eco-friendly future. Although we were not able to gather a substantial amount of energy, we believe that, if seriously researched, the microbial fuel cell could be made into something extraordinary,” said Kwart.

Although the team did not end up placing in the top three finalists, they said it was an honor just to be considered, and remain hopeful for the future of their invention.

“Maybe, even, we could one day stick two graphite electrodes into our own compost piles and generate power for our house,” said Kwart.


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