Teen science award winner Sara Volz from Colorado Springs

Sara Volz, top Intel Science Talent Search winner, of Colorado Springs. Photo courtesy of Society for Science & the Public.

Sara Volz, an 18-year-old from Colorado Springs, has won the top award of $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search for her research on algae biofuels, which could one day power vehicles.

Algae, which are tiny green plants found in lakes, rivers and oceans, produce lipids that can be extracted into oil, and federal studies show that algae can produce hundreds of gallons more oil per acre as compared with other vegetable-oil sources, Ludmilla Lelis writes in the Orlando Sentinel.

As John Sterling writes for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News:

Algae produce oil that can be converted into a sustainable, renewable fuel. However, the fuel can be costly. Sara used artificial selection to establish populations of algae cells with high oil content, which are essential for an economically feasible biofuel. Sara, a student at Cheyenne Mountain High School, built a home lab under her loft bed. She sleeps on the same light cycle as her algae.

Other researchers looking to produce the oil inexpensively and efficiently have relied on altering the algal genome or by focusing on improving growth conditions of the algae. Sara’s approach comes right out of Darwinian theory.

Volz, who will start college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology this month, presented her research yesterday to the International Phycological Congress at the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld in Florida. The conference is being attended by around 275 scientists from around the world. Lelis quotes Sara:

‘The more I learned about the potential of making fuel from vegetable oil, the more fascinating it was,’ she said. ‘But the key is making it not only economically feasible but economically competitive.'[…]

‘I think it’ll end up being used in combination of other sources of alternative energy,’ she said. ‘We’re still a little ways off, but we might be closer than some people imagine.’

According to the U.S. Energy Department, algae shows great potential as a future alternative to fossil fuels, and can be grown in sunny regions like Florida, producing 21 billion gallons of algal oil per year, Lelis writes.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced last week that by working together, industry and universities can help make clean, renewable biofuels cost-competitive with gasoline, “giving drivers more options at the pump” and cutting harmful carbon pollution, Lelis writes.

The daughter of David and Pattye Volz, Sara created her first science project in kindergarten, and has earned many honors in science competitions in the U.S. and abroad, Society for Science & the Public writes. At Cheyenne Mountain High School, she was field captain of the Science Olympiad team, captain of the Science Bowl team, and debate captain of the speech and debate team. She has also been performing since age 6, singing and acting in many plays.

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