As a sugar shortage looms, a high school student in Zimbabwe discovers that biofuel could be made from common reeds instead of sugarcane.

High School Student Invents Biofuel Solution For Sugar Shortage

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The global biofuel industry took a hit yesterday after word slipped that India was considering a cap on sugarcane ethanol, in an effort to fend off a looming sugar shortage. It’s the old fuel vs. food fight from the early 2000’s all over again. This time around, though, biofuel researchers are coming up with new solutions, and one of them is in the hands of a chemistry-obsessed high school student. The question is, will it fly?

Science Wins!

The student and her new biofuel are showcased in the upcoming National Geographic documentary series Science Fair: The Series, which debuts this weekend on October 10. If you want to get to know her, watch the show. Actually, if you want to see a thousand points of light burst through the gloom of science denial, watch the show. Smart young people applying science to solve the problems of their communities and the world is the over-arching theme of Science Fair: The Series, and it does not disappoint.

The biofuel solution is a good example. The student who developed it was motivated in part by a six-hour stint waiting in her mother’s car to fill up with gasoline during one of the chronic fuel shortages that bedevil Zimbabwe. The country produces plenty of ethanol from sugarcane, but they still depend on imported fossil fuels to blend it. The sugar shortage over in India also warns of additional problems down the road (check out reporting on the fuel situation from CleanTechnica’s Remeredzai Joseph Kuhdzai, who grew up in Zimbabwe).

Observing that sugarcane only grows on farmland but common cane-like reeds grow everywhere, the student set about showing that uncultivated reeds can produce higher concentrations of sucrose than cultivated sugarcane.

That was just the first step. To find out how — or if — she got to ethanol in time to compete in the ultra-competitive International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta, Georgia, watch the show.

Alternative Biofuel Is Just One Point Of Light

Biofuel is far from the only climate-related solution portrayed in Science Fair. The series was directed by Darren Foster and former science fair kid Cristina Costantini, who graciously sat down with CleanTechnica over Zoom for an interview earlier this week. They noted that students who compete to enter the ISEF are motivated to solve real-world problems, and the climate crisis is the mother of all problems.

Following is our conversation, edited for clarity and flow.

CleanTechnica: How did the series come to feature students working on climate solutions?

Foster: Most of the students are addressing climate change in their own way, like a more efficient electric motor or biofuel alternatives, but it’s also ever-present even if it’s not overtly a project about climate change.

Costantini: Darren and I were inspired by the ethos of these kids. So many of them see a problem and then want to fix it. This [climate change] is one of the greatest problems facing our generation. Instead of shrugging it off they are all taking it very personally. They see themselves as the front line.

CleanTechnica: Hundreds of students from 73 different countries competed in the ISEF. How did you come to choose the projects to feature?

Foster: It’s an embarrassment of riches. These kids are the best of the best at science. We look for diversity in projects, where they’re from, and their backgrounds.

CleanTechnica: How does Science Fair contrast with climate change denial and other negative perceptions of science?

Costantini: Part of the reason Darren and I chose this world is because it’s a corner of humanity that really gives us hope right now. Science is very much real. Science is very much celebrated. Many of them want to scientists, and be on the front lines of helping.

Foster noted that the primary sponsor of ISEF is Regeneron, a company that grew out of research developed by co-founder George D. Yancopoulos, MD, PhD, as a high school science fair project.

“These brilliant brains, budding ideas, excitement, beautiful pureness…they get to explore these problems,” said Foster. “It’s one of the most happy worlds to be in. It really gives us hope.”

CleanTechnica: What kinds of advice do you feel these students will give to the next generation?

Costantini: I was a sicence fair kid in high school. The skills carry on. The ability to communicate an idea…I wish more scientists were better at it.

CleanTechnica: Any closing thoughts?

Foster:  The stuff you’re going to see in Science Fair is the solutions of tomorrow. The best is still ahead of us, and these kids are really on the cutting edge of things to come over the next five or ten years.

Beyond Biofuel To The Carbon Neutral Flight Of The Future

A student with a new design for a high-efficiency electric motor is also featured in Science Fair, so we’re thinking one of those things to come is a carbon neutral electric power train for aircraft that combines biofuel with electrification.

If you’re wondering why such a thing would make sense, that’s a good question. Biofuel blends are finally emerging to reduce the carbon footprint of conventional aircraft. New electric aircraft are also emerging on the scene, including fuel cell electric aircraft as well as battery-powered ones.

The challenge for biofuel is that blending still depends on fossil energy. Meanwhile, electrified flight is still limited to a handful of passengers, with scaling up years in the future.

To solve both problems at once, the US Department of Energy is pursuing an initiative called ASCEND, for Aviation-class Synergistically Cooled Electric-motors with iNtegrated Drives.

ASCEND is administered by the Energy Department’s ARPA-E funding office for high risk, high reward projects. Last spring the office awarded $5 million to a team of researchers at Texas A&M University to develop a light weight, high efficiency electric powertrain for aircraft under Phase II of the program.

The goal is to scale electric flight up to single-aisle, 150-200 seat commercial aircraft — which account for almost 50% of greenhouse gas emissions related to air travel — sooner rather than later.

“By using carbon-neutral liquid fuels, such as ethanol or green ammonia, an all-electric propulsion system would have net-zero emissions and be much quieter for passengers and those in the vicinity of airports,” Texas A&M explains.

If all goes according to plan, Phase II will yield a “fully integrated all-electric powertrain system at a power density of 12 kilowatts per kilogram or greater with an efficiency of 93% or greater.”

As described by Texas A&M, no such technology currently exists, that is until the research team brings it to life with the help of 3D printing and other new manufacturing processes.

Meanwhile, ARPA-E is also looking to support the next generation of up-and-coming scientists with a new $10 million early career incubator to launch in 2024, called IGNITE for Inspiring Generations of New Innovators to Impact Technologies in Energy.

“I was once a young engineer, and at ARPA-E we want to support early-career researchers, entrepreneurs, and engineers to develop outside the box energy solutions and tackle the challenges they are passionate about,” explains ARPA-E Director Evelyn N. Wang. “With IGNIITE 2024, I am optimistic that together, we can support a new generation of energy innovators and create a clean, sustainable energy future.”

The application process launched last month and concept papers are due on January 4, for those of you who are interested in applying.

Check out the Science Fair trailer here.

Follow me @tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Post, and LinkedIn.

Photo (screenshot): A new biofuel and other climate solutions are featured in Science Fair trailer courtesy of National Geographic National Geographic Documentary Films.


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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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