by Nathan Warner
The light bulb is always on above Josh Wolf’s head. Revolutionary new ideas continue to shine from the bright mind of the Elk River native. This year is no exception. The 16-year-old high school scientist and inventor was recently featured in Popular Science magazine as one of the top 10 high school inventors in 2012 for his oil extraction from algae prototype.
You may also have seen the budding inventor this past year on KARE 11 news, in the Star Tribune, Scholastic News, at the Elk River Energy Expo, or just about town picking up nail polish remover or PVC plumbing for his experiments.
Hot on the heels of these acknowledgements, Josh is headed off again to the Grether Regional Science Fair in St. Cloud Feb. 25, hopefully on his way to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Ariz. But this time, he needs a little help from his hometown.
“This year, my project is more involved and costly than things I’ve done in the past,” Josh says, “and I’ve sent letters to energy and waste companies around the area to see if they’d be willing to sponsor me.” Josh adds that if a company makes a donation, he will paste their logo on his science fair project.
His letter concludes: “In order to continue my research, I am asking for $150 to fund the purchase of design materials for making my prototype for this year’s science fair. In return, your logo will be on the prototype itself. I believe this project has potential to garner a lot of attention and press, making this a worthwhile investment into a budding science career as well as an environmentally conscious fuel production.”
At least one Elk River company has already shown its support for the project. “I sent a letter to the Elk River Landfill and they sent me a check for $150,” Josh says. While that’s a promising start, more is needed to accomplish his ambitious project.
So what’s this project about, anyway? “I have developed a specific process for the thermal oxidation and photo degradation of low density polyethylene (mainly commercial plastic bags),” Josh explains, “which is then susceptible to bacterial consumption. The selective bacteria I am using is capable of producing bio-butanol, which is being heralded as the replacement to corn-ethanol fuel in the renewable fuels market.”
In plain English, his project is the conversion of plastic bags to a renewable gasoline fuel. Josh believes the potential payoff could be huge, as plastics have been a pervasive problem in the environment since their introduction. Producing usable fuel from the large amounts of waste plastics in landfills and the environment might be a large enough incentive to deal with the problem in an efficient, economical and productive manner. Josh believes it could potentially be as big, if not bigger, than his project last year, as it encompasses a greater environmental perspective coupled with renewable energy production.
The added cost relates to the nature of the bacteria he’s using to break down his plastic bags. “The bugs don’t like oxygen,” he laughs, “so I have to build a completely sealable container to keep air out.” And that’s just for starters. Another item on his large shopping list is a transparent PVC pipe, which isn’t something he says he can pick up at the local hardware store.
Josh’s big goal this year is to represent Minnesota at the Intel International Science Fair. Last year he won first place at the Minnesota Science Fair, received the 3M-Innovation award, and was nominated to represent Minnesota at the Intel International Science Fair, but the honor went to someone else. Getting that close only served to increase his resolve to make it all the way this year.
“I really hope to represent Elk River,” he says, “and introduce new and exciting ideas that will potentially solve world challenges, improve the environment and create jobs.” All he needs is a foot up from his community.
If you have questions or need additional information, contact Josh Wolf at [email protected]