Winning Essays

Below are excerpts from The 2014 DuPont Challenge first place essays.

Daniel Burgess, Junior Division First Place Winner

The Energy of Ideas (excerpt)

I was on the crux of the ascent of 14,000-foot Snowmass Mountain; to either side thousand-foot drops. We were alone. The sun was blindingly bright, but dark clouds were building. We had to reach the summit and descend before the lightning storms arrived. The massive permanent snowfield that gives Snowmass its name is not so permanent anymore. A warmer atmosphere causes it to disappear every summer, exposing the granite. As my Dad and I rushed up the mountain, we grabbed the massive, but unstable, boulders. Taking a dangerous or inefficient route wastes energy and risks a deadly fall. The air was crisp and the silence ruptured by strong, wailing gusts, but after spending the day in intense, high-altitude sunlight, the rocks were quite warm. Meltwater trickled underneath the rocks. The granite slabs felt strange, so much warmer than the air. As we reached the summit, thunder echoed in the distance. Then, lightning struck a nearby peak. I knew that if I were closer I could have heard the rocks crackling with static electricity. For the entire two-hour descent, with no cover from the lightning, it was a race for our lives.

We were fortunate to escape Snowmass safely. While driving out of the Rockies later that week, my thoughts became fixed on that harrowing, glorious afternoon. Driving north from Golden to Boulder, we passed many solar arrays. Several large arrays were on the rooftops of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, yet some were on businesses, and others on homes. I wondered if solar panels could produce more than electricity, if there might be an even more efficient design. I kept thinking about Snowmass: the intense sunlight, the trickling snowmelt warmed by the rocks, and the electricity in the air. Then I got an idea....

...Nowhere are solar cells harnessing the heat of the sun. They only use light to generate power. So my goal is to double the amount of electricity produced by solar cells, and add water heating capabilities by combining breakthrough technologies into one super cell.

The vision I had involved a multi-layered highly-efficient cell combined with a water heater. The top layer would be made of transparent, UV-capturing solar cell layered above a highly efficient silicon or germanium-based solar cell. A clear material that conducts heat would be situated above the opaque, reflective cell, with thin hoses running between the cells and against the heat conducting layer to heat water for the home.

I thought that if I was going to combine a solar cell with a water heater, why not go a step further and improve the photovoltaic cell itself? Because the ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths are not powerful enough to dislodge electrons in the semiconductors of standard solar cells, their energy is absorbed as heat. That is perfect for the thermal energy needed to heat water, but a small amount of electricity could still be generated from those wavelengths. A conversion rate of even a couple percent could boost a competing cell to rival the most efficient model on the market. After more research, I found that prototype cells exist that could generate electricity from UV wavelengths. I discussed my early ideas with a materials scientist and engineer from a green energy company, and he made some suggestions for research, and advised me to file a provisional patent, which I did....

See the full list of Junior Division winners and honorable mentions.

William (Ray) Duan, Senior Division First Place Winner

Defeating Desertification: Magical Cyanobacteria (excerpt)

Plink. A single grain of sand skitters along hard, packed earth. As it tumbles past fields of lush, green rice, the Chinese farmers eyes widen and their hearts sink in fear. But what could a single speck, so small that it barely casts a shadow, carry with it to cause such a panic? The answer: dust storms. Each spring, strong winds create dust storms across the vast land of China, lifting dirt and sand particles into the air and unleashing turbulent, suffocating clouds that can reduce visibility to almost zero. But these fine-grained leviathans do more than demonstrate nature's awe-inspiring strength. These dust storms have caused damage akin to that of a large-scale earthquake, killing people, butchering livestock, obliterating crops, and forcing people to abandon their homes (Liu et al. 2004). Yet the effects of dust storms range far beyond those of rapid, merciless destruction. In stripping land of millions of tons of topsoil, dust storms can transform once-fertile lands into literal dustbowls--a process known as desertification (Brady 2013)....

As desertification wreaks havoc across the globe, scientists struggle to find a workable solution. A variety of techniques have been devised to combat desertification, such as planting rows of trees or shrubs known as windbreaks around the edges of fields (Hussaini and Irfan 2012), and mulching, the covering of land by a layer of sparse vegetation to fixate and enrich the underlying soil (Gabriels et al. 2008). However, the success of these methods has been limited by the high cost associated with their large-scale implementations. What solution, then, would not only be economically viable, but could also be implemented on a global scale?

The answer may lie in one of the oldest life forms on the planet: microscopic cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria are unicellular, photosynthetic prokaryotes that thrive in aquatic environments and are abundant in nature. With more than 3.5 billion years of biological history, cyanobacteria can be found in almost every terrestrial and aquatic habitat, such as oceans, lakes, damp soil, and temporarily moistened rocks in deserts. As one of the few bacterial groups that can perform both photosynthesis and respiration simultaneously in the same environment, cyanobacteria possess a remarkable hardiness that allows them to survive and flourish in a wide range of environmental conditions (Cabrillo College 2013)....

...Cyanobacteria sprays are emerging as a scientifically and economically feasible solution to battle desertification. The bacteria's omnipresence in nature provides an almost infinite supply of materials for the spray; application by spraying is both straightforward and cost-savvy; and the evolutionary robustness of the cyanobacteria allows them to survive as the ideal life-forms for arid and semi-arid conditions worldwide. Three billion years ago, cyanobacteria helped create the perfect environment for life to flourish on Earth (Cabrillo College 2013). Today, these ancient microorganisms may bring us salvation yet again in the fight against desertification--and ultimately, save our beloved planet from literally turning into dust.

See the full list of Senior Division winners and honorable mentions.