Students learn about sustainable energy field through hands-on projects

Isha Mohapatra presented her project Friday at the Energypath 2016 science fair at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center that looks into way to make bricks more insulated.
Isha Mohapatra presented her project Friday at the Energypath 2016 science fair at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center that looks into way to make bricks more insulated.

With funding received in January from Johns Hopkins University, a sophomore high school student from Bethlehem said she plans to put that money toward research into ways to make bricks more insulating.

Isha Mohapatra presented her project Friday at Energypath 2016 — a weeklong event that exposed middle and high school and college students to the sustainable energy field.

This week, it was held at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center.

The week ended with a conference and science fair with more than 140 participants.

But Energypath President and CEO John Costlow said more than 300 people were in attendance during the week.

Mohapatra showcased a project she’s been working on for more than three years that tested ways to insulate brick.

“Energy conservation is important,” she said. “The U.S. is the second largest consumer of energy behind China, and 41.5 percent of household energy comes from heating. I wanted to find a way to help limit the energy used from something, like brick, that’s used everywhere.”

Taking a trial-and-error approach, Mohapatra combined different substances with the brick mixture to fill in air pockets.

First, using a brick mixture with 10 percent sawdust — and testing it with a thermal conductivity meter — she found the mixture saved 50 percent of energy lost from a regular brick.

However, when heated in a kiln, the sawdust burned away.

That’s when she turned to limestone, which Mohapatra said was more successful.

“We used the Lehigh University civil engineering department to test this, and the strength grew crazily,” she said. “It’s something realistic that can be used anywhere around the world. It’s good for insulating things like a house or building when it’s cold, but it also is good for warmer climates. You use the (air conditioning) less because it can keep the cool in.”

Students like Mohapatra were then judged on their projects and presentation with first-, second- and third-place monetary prizes in two age divisions.

While Mohapatra won second place a few years ago, for others, it was their first time getting involved in the Energypath science fair.

Solomon Heisey, a senior high school student from Elizabethtown, created a method of harvesting energy from algae.

“I’m from a really small rural area of Pennsylvania, and there’s lots of algae,” he said. “I just thought we should do something with it and create electrical energy from it.”

He collected algae in beakers, and then hooked copper and zinc electrodes to the algae that attracted electrons found in algae bacteria. That charge was then transmitted through a USB drive.

“It’s better than biofuel because it doesn’t burn the algae and it doesn’t harm it, so the process could work forever, as long as the algae stays alive,” Heisey said. “It has the same voltage as an electrical socket.”

Costlow said “this kind of thinking” has been part of Energypath’s goal since its inception in 2005.

“Most people aren’t thinking of this stuff in college let alone high school,” he said. “It’s helping get students engaged in this kind of science, and help them possibly determine a career path. With some college students, I’ve also seen some change paths because of this (event). It’s stimulating learning and maintaining that passion.”

Energypath 2016 also included conferences and three days of pre-energy camp for college students.

Costlow said they used facilities at Penn State to participate in hands-on activities like building a 40-foot wind turbine.

“It’s not just learning from a lecture,” Costlow said. “They’re learning things hands-on from practitioners in the industry.”

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo