BANGOR, Maine — Will Benoit extended one streak and snapped another when he was named Maine’s Stockholm Junior Water Prize winner.
The senior-to-be became the fourth consecutive state winner from Bangor High School and the first male student among the five Bangor students who have won the prestigious honor over the last six years.
“I’ve always been interested in different types of science. It was astronomy when I was little, then chemistry, then physics,” said Benoit, whose state-winning submission was a presentation on using nanofibrillated cellulose to create a cheaper alternative for water filtration.
Benoit is the son of Bangor Daily News Director of News and New Media Todd Benoit.
Bangor High chemistry teacher Cary James, who is also head of the school’s science department, recommended Benoit to work with Haitian University of Maine graduate student Finley Richmond on a research project through a cooperative program between the two institutions.
“It’s been really enjoyable just being able to work in a natural science lab and you get an idea what it means to be a chemical engineer,” Benoit said. “And it’s a really interesting project where you can see all the practical applications.”
The project’s goal is to develop a cheaper means to filter water, something that would go a long way toward creating cleaner drinking water in Third World countries. It involves breaking down nanofibrillated cellulose and using it to construct water filters.
“Nano is an exploding research area and we’ve been lucky to work with great people at Maine like Vivian Wu, a food science and human nutrition associate professor, and Professor Doug Bousfield,” said James.
Bousfield, who also helped with the project, is UMaine’s director of the paper surface science program and a graduate coordinator.
The 2010 state winner, Rebecca Ye, won the national Stockholm award for her project, which created a biosensor capable of rapidly identifying strains of the pathogenic bacteria E. coli.
Benoit, who is also a member of Bangor’s debate, math and academic decathlon teams, is the first nonsenior from Bangor to win the award.
What is the secret of Bangor’s record of smooth sailing to Stockholm success?
“Well, I have a passion for water and I’m lucky the kids pick up on it,” James said. “And success builds success, just like all other things in life.”
Benoit didn’t finish among the top five nationally, but the son of Todd and Michele Benoit and older brother of Peter Benoit is optimistic he’ll be able to resubmit his project next year once he creates an actual working filter.
“It’s a membrane made up of plant cellulose which has been ground down,” Benoit said. “The fibers form a mesh net kind of structure and you have a single strand or fiber of cellulose that becomes lots of little finer strings that overlap each other.”
Think of a thick rope which is frayed into its individual fibers. The filter is basically plain copier paper coated with a layer of nanofibrillated cellulose.
“We were already able to produce the nanocellulose, but the challenge was turning it into a workable filter that would stop bacteria,” Benoit said.
“Bacteria would move around the filter and not go through it, there may have been holes in it, and we’ve pretty much been steadily getting better. We have a good idea of what the problem is.”
And that’s mostly that the nanocellulose is not completely covering the paper, and that the water is going through too slowly.
“It’s still not a perfect filter, but we’re getting there,” Benoit said. “I think by the end of the year, we’ll have a working design for it.”
Benoit, who estimates he has put at least 100 hours into the project since joining with Richmond last February, is still spending 10 of his 20 hours per week at UMaine this summer as a summer internship program participant working in the lab. He says he feels like the project has become personal for him.
“It kind of does,” he said. “I really just want to see it work.”