Loudoun County Regional Science and Engineering Fair

Energy and Environmental Sustainability Awards

The goal of science is to make sense of the diversity of nature.” John Barrow, New Theories of Everything, 2007. 

The basis for the definition of taxa has progressively shifted from the organismal to the cellular to the molecular level. Molecular comparisons show that life on this planet divides into three primary groupings, commonly known as the eubacteria, the archaebacteria, and the eukaryotes.” Carl Woese, et al., Towards a natural system of organisms: Proposal for the domains Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya, Proc. Nati. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol. 87, pp. 4576-4579, June 1990, Evolution.

Exploration of [Titan] is of high interest because much of the chemistry going on in the atmosphere and on the surface may give us insight into organic chemistry on the earliest Earth.”  Jonathan Lunine, Earth, Evolution of a Habitable World, 2000.

Sustainable Loudoun launched the Energy and Environmental Sustainability Awards in 2007 using a donation from a local group.  Since 2008, REHAU Corporation has financed the award and Mike Maher of REHAU and I have judged the student projects.  In the last couple of years John Hunter of Lovettsville has been a third judge.  Every year we have been impressed with the competence and creativity of the students.  It has always been difficult to select winners from among so many deserving entries but a complete joy reviewing these projects with such promising and remarkable students.  Last year we introduced an honorable mention category to acknowledge what we considered the best freshman entry. 

The awards ceremony will be on Earth Day, April 22 at 7 PM at REHAU in Leesburg.   Featured speakers are Edgar Hatrick, Superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools, Martin Ogle,  Chief Naturalist for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, and Meghan Chapple-Brown, Director of the Office of Sustainability at The George Washington University.  Open and free adminssion.

There is an accidental or unintended theme to this year’s winning projects.  Within the sustainability literature, description of opportunities for cooperation with nature as opposed to competition with nature, are plentiful.  Life forms have been suggested for remediation of ocean dead zones, rebuilding damaged soils, processing sewage and generating biofuels and of course many more applications have been proposed.  Many farms in Loudoun County use organic principles taking advantage of natural nitrogen fixers, dung beetles and worms and other natural composters.  In order to take advantage of this technology it is necessary to understand the metabolism and evolution of critters.  Our first place winner, Danyas Sarathy a Freedom High School freshman analyzed the database of cellular metabolism to construct a tree of life identical to the evolutionary tree constructed by Carl Woese, the discoverer of Archaeabacteria.  Archaeabacteria are extremophiles.  If life exists anywhere else in the solar system, Mars, Titan or Europa, it will need to be similar to these extremophiles.  Our third place winner, Heather Quante, a Loudoun Valley High School Senior, analyzed the possibility of such organisms surviving on Saturn’s moon Titan.  Our second place project is a team effort of Anita Alexander, Broad Run High School Senior and Hannah Arnold, Loudoun County High School Senior.  They conducted some experiments on a possible practical application of our knowledge of organism metabolism using bacteria, Ralstonia eutropha, to produce plastic precursors. 

Our honorable mention winner goes to Adithya Saikumar, a Briar Woods High School freshman.  Adithya’s project demonstrates good research technique and we look forward to seeing what Adithya accomplishes next year.

Project abstracts:

First Place:

Comparative Metabolomics: Construction and Analysis of Eukaryotic and Prokaryotic Metabolomes  Danyas Sarathy 1305F09 Freedom High School Freshman

Metabolomes are comprised of cellular metabolites which are small molecules of intermediary metabolism.  Biological databases like KEGG, PubChem and Metacyc contain information on human, animal, plant and microbial genomes that have been sequenced and annotated.  Also, information on the functions of gene products, particularly on the enzymes of all pathways of intermediary metabolism is also provided in these public domain databases.  In this study, the reactions catalyzed by the pathway enzymes in terms of reactions involving substrate and product molecules were data mined.  Extraction of these metabolites and compiling them for representative organisms allowed comparative analysis of metabolomes within and among the different groups.  A defined set of metabolites were found to be present in all metabolomes which could be called the core metabolome, containing mostly the basic blocks of amino acids and nucleotides for Protein and DNA synthesis.  A number of correlations indicated that heterotrophs in general possess wider metabolic capabilities than the autotrophes that is reflected in the size of the metabolomes.  Furthermore, clustering analysis of these metabolomes using multi-variate statistical analysis package (MVSP) enabled the construction of a tree of life that displayed the discrete segregation of diverse organisms info groups of animal, plant, fungi, protest, bacteria and archaea.  This metabolome-based tree of life is a novel and alternative approach to the classical phylogenetic construction of tree based on small subunit ribosomal RNAs of diverse organisms.

Second Place:

Waste Products as Growth Media for the Accumulation of PHAs – Anita Alexander, Broad Run High School and Hannah Arnold, Loudoun County High School.

Polyhydroxyalkanotes, or PHAs, are biodegradable thermoplastics produced by certain bacteria under stressed conditions.  However, the production and extraction of this polymer is currently an expensive process.  The goal of the research is to lower the cost and impact on the environment of the process by using waste products for the main carbon source.  The specific objective of the research was to determine which of several waste products is most effective as the carbon source to be used in the fermentation medium.  Ralstonia eutropha was grown in a nitrogen-limited fermentation medium containing an excess of carbon in the form of waste products, such as a dead leaf slurry and seeds.  The growth of the cells was measured, and the polymer was subsequently extracted by first treating the bacteria with methanol, and then adding 30 mL acetone for 24 hours. Comparisons were made between the growth rates of bacteria in the different media, as well as between the dry weight of the extracted polymer.  Slightly lower growth rates have been observed in those trials utilizing a waste product as a carbon source, as compared to the control group, however the final product is comparable and makes use of materials that would otherwise be thrown away.  By reducing the overall cost of this process, the economic viability is increased, thus giving the product potential as an environmentally beneficial replacement for petroleum-based plastics.

Third Place:

Modeling Populations of Organisms on Titan – Heather Quante, Loudoun Valley High School.

Exploration of the solar system has yielded data on many different environments that may be hospitable to life, including Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.  Some organisms that live in extreme environments on Earth, called extremophiles, live in conditions such as extreme cold which are similar to those on Titan.  The purpose of this project is to use mathematical modeling to ascertain whether organisms that had evolved characteristic similar to extremophiles would be able to survive in Titan’s environments.  Last year, data from previous studies of extremophiles were collected to quantify growth rate under different environmental conditions, and specific data on Titan’s environments were gathered using Cassini-Huygens mission data.  These two data collections were then used in Excel to create a logistic population model whose equation describes how extremophiles would be affected when subjected to an environmental condition, such as temperature.  This year, the project was moved into the Mathematica program to create a logistics model that would simultaneously calculate the effects of changing temperature, pressure, and pH on the growth rate of the population.  Additionally, the model was made more accurate by taking into account the population’s constantly changing effects on its environment.  In the end, when Titan-like environmental conditions were chosen for the model, it could determine whether an extremophile population would grow and sustain itself or die out over time.  The model’s final results predicted that possibilities for life on Titan’s surface are slim, but a small, slow-growing, stable population may survive in Titan’s underground ocean environment.

Honorable Mention:

Nano-Tech Powering Green Movement – Adithya Saikumar, Briar Woods High School.

Ever think of driving a car without stopping for gas?  That is possible with hydrogen fuel cell powered automobiles.  It is the future of renewable energy, but the problem is its efficiency.  This experiment focuses on trying to increase the efficiency of such a car.  Using Silver nano-particles (IV), the experiment tests to increase the time the car runs (DV) on a single charge.  The time the car runs without the nano-particles serves as the control.  15 trials were taken for both the IV and the control group.  The time the car ran and the hydrogen/oxygen produced were recorded.

The control group timing averaged 326.33 seconds.  The IV group averaged 343.33 seconds.  The amount of hydrogen/oxygen produced for the control and IV groups were 15.23/11.06 and 19.06/9.9 mL respectively.  The number produced by a T test indicated that the results were not significant.

The alternative hypothesis stated, “if one added nano-particles to fuel cells, the efficiency will increase.”  Based on the results found, the hypothesis was supported.  However, the T test reported the results were not significant.  More trials may have helped.  The independent variable influenced the dependent; there was a 17 second increase in the IV group timing.

Further research could explore on why nano-particles increased hydrogen production but not oxygen production.  This experiment was done in a small scale.  It proved that nano-particles increase the efficiency.  If could be extended to full size cars.  This experiment is a contribution to the future of fuel cells as a source of renewable energy.

Tony Noerpel

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