Uproxx knows that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are driving the future of this planet forward. Every day, we see new ideas, fresh innovations, and bold trailblazers in these fields. Follow us this month as we highlight how STEM is shaping the culture of NOW.
During a trip to Central America, Luke Clay, a teenager from Columbus, Ohio, was appalled by the Styrofoam waste he saw littering the beaches. Further research led Clay — along with classmates Julia Bray and Ashton Cofer — to discover that 1.9 billion pounds of Styrofoam (the brand name of expanded polystyrene) are discarded every year. In fact, this specific waste accounts for 25% of landfill contents in the United States alone.
The students continued to examine the issue and eventually discovered that since styrofoam is 92% carbon, it could be activated and used as a water filtration system. They envisioned a double-edged fix — 663 million people in the world are still without access to clean water and water filters save lives around the world every day. By turning a problem — styrofoam waste — into a problem solver, these young scientists hoped to discover a viable solution to two major environmental ills.
“The idea was just the beginning,” Ashton Cofer told us. “Our first tests vaporized or ignited into flames. In fact, we were almost ready to give up. However, we kept trying more tests in different conditions until we finally got our first successful result. From there, we proceeded to conduct more testing to improve our product and test its effectiveness.”
The trio called their company Styro-Filter, and their hard work and endless experimentation eventually paid off. In 2016 they entered the Google Science Fair and won the Scientific American Innovators Award, garnering the team a $15,000 cash prize, a year of mentoring, and a cruise.
“Ashton, Luke, and Julia set out to see whether they could turn styrofoam waste into something useful and they did,” says Scientific American Editor in Chief and Head Judge of the Google Science Fair, Mariette DiChristina. “Where their innovation goes next will rely on lots of factors—including how we as a society support such new ideas.”
Since their breakthrough, the three young scientists have worked to develop the Styro-Filter on a larger scale — writing a business plan and completing further testing. While they admit that they’re a few steps away from being able to bring a product to market, the team is motivated and inspired to continue developing their concept. The tasks ahead are daunting, but they don’t intimidate the three teens.
“Most problems seem big and overwhelming at first,” Bray says. “The most important part to remember is to never give up… The failures and things we learned along the way were vital in making a successful innovation.”