URBANA – Members of the Inventors Club at University Laboratory High School are a high-spirited bunch.
They crack jokes, nibble snacks and discuss how best to invent a device that will help reduce pollution coming from shrimp farms in Belize.
Uni's Inventors Club was awarded a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams Grant of about $7,000 to develop the creation, and the group will present its findings in June at Lemelson-MIT's EurekaFest in Boston.
They're working with Timothy Smith, the father of a Uni student and a consultant who's been working with shrimp farmers in Belize to reduce their stress on the environment.
While the country is one of the most environmentally conscious among developing nations, Smith said in an e-mail, it's also the site of the Mesoamerican Reef, "the world's second-longest reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the source of considerable income from tourism."
The main environmental problem with shrimp farms in Belize is that waste water causes excess nutrients to flow through canals to the ocean.
"Basically, excess nutrients cause more algae to grow on coral reefs," said Uni senior Diana Liu, 17.
The students are working with Smith and his contacts in Belize to find a way to remove pollution and nutrients from the waste water in an economically and environmentally friendly way.
They're hoping to figure out a way to use the nutrients to grow and harvest algae in waste-water canals. You can read about their work at http://inventorsclubbelizeproject.blogspot.com.
Getting the algae to grow in canals would prevent the waste from entering the ocean and causing problems there – and the algae could be reused as shrimp feed, which would cut its cost.
A commercial product called AquaMat was designed to address this problem, but it doesn't allow for easy harvesting of algae, as fibers are damaged when attempts are made, junior Adam Joseph said. But the students may use AquaMat in their prototype, said the group's adviser and chemistry teacher, Dave Bergandine.
And if that's not challenging enough, the invention needs to be made from materials inexpensive enough for shrimp farmers to purchase, it needs to work on a large scale and it needs to have a quick return on investment, Liu said, or else farmers won't see a reason to use it.
It needs to fit the locale, Bergandine said.
And there are other challenges, Smith said.
"The main challenge for this project is to keep it cost effective and also have it function at very large scales," Smith said. "Their prototype will be quite small, but even a small shrimp farm can produce 4 million pounds of shrimp in a year. To remove the leftover nutrients from a production process of that size is no mean feat. While they're doing that, they have to keep an close eye on materials, labor and maintenance costs for the full scale product or the farmer simply won't be able to afford to use the device.
Plus, Bergandine said, club members have other school obligations, like sports and music, so they're busy.
"They're doing all the other things high school kids are doing at this age," he said.
The 14 active students in the club have split into groups. One group is working on a prototype of a creation that will allow for the growth of algae on a structure. They started work on it in tanks full of pond water at the school this winter and have since moved outdoors to streams in the area. Right now, the creation is made of cheesecloth layered between plastic embroidery canvas.
Another group is working on a way to harvest the algae from the structure so it can be fed to shrimp on the farms. This winter, students talked about using brushes to remove the algae.
The designs should be "appropriate technology," meaning they can be built and maintained with materials that are readily available in a developing nation. That ensures the device will be practical for use all over the world.
"This problem is not just in Belize," said senior Liz Allen, 17. "(Countries) all over the world have similar problems."
More groups have tackled other parts of the project, like managing the grant money, raising money to get the team to Boston this summer and handling media relations.
And while they'll present their findings in June – along with 14 other teams from around the country working on other projects – the students already are thinking about if they'll want to pursue a patent and if their invention will be able to cross over to other forms of aquaculture.
Smith said the youngsters are on the right track.
"This is a technically difficult ecological problem and the laws of thermodynamics are stacked against it," he said. "If it were easy, it would have already been done. ... The fact that the club has plugged into this specific issue and understand all the major pieces of it is a major accomplishment in and of itself.
"If they make a decent showing, that will be a huge, huge victory. I also see some evidence that their ideas might actually work."