Finding a spark of energy in Maple Ridge river mud has got Ben Chisolm returning to the national science fair this year.
Chisolm, a Grade 8 student at Thomas Haney secondary, had a winning project at the Fraser Valley Regional Science Fair on April 7-10, held at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford. His microbial fuel cell project won gold in the junior biotechnology class, and also took the Dean of Science Award, for the best project in any area, which carried a prize of $100.
That wins him the right to compete in the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Fredericton from May 11 to May 16. It will feature about 500 of Canada’s top young scientists competing for almost $1 million worth of prizes and scholarships, including a top prize of $10,000 for the top project.
“One Man’s Waste is Another Man’s Power,” is the name of his project, and Chisolm talks about it with the ease and authority that most kids his age only demonstrate in discussions about Minecraft or Family Guy reruns.
It may use humble components, but it’s big science.
Chisolm built a microbial fuel cell – a bioelectrical, chemical process that is not yet fully understood by science.
He got benthic mud, which is the bottom layer of mud from a local stream, where bacteria don’t require oxygen to survive. These bacteria digest organic matter, and convert it to electricity – which the bacteria uses, and which can be captured and measured.
“When we think of renewable energy, we usually think of solar panels and wind turbines and hydro dams. But if you use a microbial fuel cell, you get clean renewable energy from microbes in waste products,” he writes in the project.
“A microbial fuel cell is a device that converts organic material to electricity using microbes. It also produces clean drinking water in the process. We all need water to survive, and we also need electricity for everyday living. With a MFC, you can get both from waste. Each year, almost 25 billion dollars are spent in treating wastewater. A lot of resources and money could be saved if we used waste water for fuel.”
In his first test, he put the mud in his wired plastic container, and measured the electricity generated in the microbial fuel cell, which added up to 85.3 millivolts.
For a second experiment, he added compost, and was able to quadruple the voltage. That proves to him that there is a potential power source to be had in our own bio waste.
For a third experiment, he added apple cider vinegar, hypothesizing it might increase the voltage further, but found that it didn’t.
“The generation of electricity, in an eco-friendly manner, is real and needs to be developed,” he says.
“This is a great alternative to the use of fossil fuels in locations where there are large amounts of waste bacteria generated. I would like to see waste management plants powered by this technology in the future. If they were to use this they would get free power and use it to clean the water. This will help the earth restore it’s reservoirs with clean affordable water.”
There is no science fair in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District, and Chisolm does his work independently. He started work on the project in December, did most of his research done online, and finished this month.
Last year, as a Grade 7 student at Alouette Elementary, he researched a hydrogen fuel cell, and won his way to the national science fair in Windsor, Ont.
He said it was a great experience, meeting other kids who share a passion for science, and seeing the quality of the science fair projects they produce. He was most impressed by a project in which an Ottawa student developed a better way to produce and fit prosthetic limbs using a 3D scanner. That was judged the best project in the fair, and also got Daniel McInnis entrance scholarship offers from seven different universities.
That’s the kind of success Chisolm is working toward, and just in Grade 8, he’s got years of science fair success still ahead of him.