BANGOR, Maine — Bangor High School senior Paige Brown is hoping that the gadget she designed to help clean polluted water will earn her one of the top prizes in the Intel Science Talent Search competition underway in Washington, D.C.
Brown was one of 40 finalists from around the country to be invited to compete in what is billed as the nation’s oldest and most prestigious pre-college science and math competition.
“It’s going really well. There’s a lot going on,” Brown said Monday during a phone interview.
Brown’s research project, titled “Identifying and Remediating the Sources of Pollution in Impaired Bangor Streams,” won the Maine Stockholm Junior Water Prize last year, and she took home a fourth-place award of $500 in the Earth and Environmental Sciences category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last spring, where she was awarded a full four-year scholarship to Drexel University.
This time, she’s in the running for one of three first-place medals of distinction, each worth $150,000 in scholarship funding. This year’s winners will be announced during an awards ceremony on Tuesday evening, said Brown.
Brown said that although her parents, Heather and Daniel Brown, were unable to make the trip to Washington, her research mentor, Cary James, head of Bangor High School’s science, technology and engineering department, will fly south on Tuesday to cheer her on. More than 1,300 people will be there at the National Building Museum, she said.
“It’s a black tie event,” said Paige Brown, who’ll be wearing her floor-length prom dress. “I figured I’d get a couple more uses out of it.”
Perhaps as exciting as the potential for prizes is the opportunity to meet like-minded students, she said.
“It’s an incredible opportunity, and I highly recommend it. I’ve become really close to the other 39 finalists. It’s an opportunity I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world,” Brown said. “The kind of people that are here are the kind of people I want to hang around with and I want to know, going forward in my schooling and my career. The kind of connections I can make here are going to be crucial further down the line.”
Brown said her project involved identifying the types and sources of pollution impairing the streams in the Bangor area.
“What I found was that stormwater was introducing the pollutants and that the two most critical pollutants were phosphorus and E. coli, and so I started building these scaffolds,” she said.
The scaffolds, which are chemicals contained in small dispensers, are meant to be deployed in stormwater detention ponds.
“They’re about the size of a quarter, and they’re made of primarily what’s called calcium alginate, which is a component of salad dressing actually,” she said.
“It’s like a gel and mixed in with that is magnesium aluminum layered double hydroxides,” she said, adding that the magnesium and aluminum ions absorb phosphorous from the water.
The scaffold then can be removed from the water and reused and recycled as slow release fertilizer capsules that can be buried with plants or crops, therefore not contributing to further phosphorous pollution, she said.
The phosphorous is in fertilizer, industrial waste and organic matter, among other things. Because it is a nutrient, it contributes to algal bloom growth, which blocks sunlight and prevents other aquatic life from growing.
While she said she is still waiting for the final data, Brown also is working on attaching silver nanoparticles to the scaffolds to remove E. coli and other bacteria from water.
According to Brown, the devices she engineered to absorb 127 milligrams of phosphorus per gram of scaffold cost only 4 cents per gram to manufacture, she said. The scaffold housings she designed cost about $3 apiece to make using all new materials but could easily be made with recycled material such as packing foam or an old T-shirt, she said.
Brown said she plans to major in chemical engineering and already has been accepted by Stanford, Columbia, Yale and California Institute of Technology. She hasn’t decided what school she will attend. After that, she hopes to create a startup based on her research and manufacture the prototype she developed.
Brown was one of two students chosen from Maine to compete in Washington. The other was Demetri Maxim of Gould Academy in Bethel. His project is titled “Directed Differentiation of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells into Mature Kidney Cells that Form Nephron Structures in Kidney Scaffolds.”