LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Engineers sometimes dump large numbers of hollow plastic softball-sized spheres into water reservoirs. These so-called shade balls spread out to cover the water’s surface. They are meant to help cut evaporation in dry areas, among other things. But one teen’s research now suggests they’d trim water loss even better if they were 12-sided, not round.
Shade balls cut down on evaporation several ways, explains Kenneth West. He’s a Florida 10th-grader at Melbourne High School. As their name suggests, the balls shade the underlying water, keeping it cool. And cooler water evaporates more slowly than warm water. Second, a layer of balls reduces the area of water exposed to the air. But a round shape doesn’t fully cover the water’s surface, Kenneth notes. Even when packed at their tightest, up to 10 percent of the water’s surface can be exposed to the air. So the 16-year-old decided to see whether another shape would cut evaporation even better. His shape of choice: the 12-sided dodecahedron (Do-DEK-ah-HE-drun). It’s the same shape as a 12-sided die used in some games.
Kenneth showcased his research last week, here, at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. ISEF was created by Society for Science & the Public and is sponsored by Intel. The competition lets students from around the world show off their winning science fair projects. (The Society also publishes Science News for Students.) This year, nearly 1,800 high school students from more than 75 countries competed for big prizes and the ability to display their research. Kenneth landed a $500 prize in the division of Earth and Environmental Science for his research.
What his data showed
For his experiments, Kenneth placed 12 bins in his yard and filled them with water. He covered the water in some bins with a layer of regular shade balls. In other bins, he covered the surface of the water with floating dodecahedrons. In yet others, he had only water. After 10 days, he measured water levels in each bin. That let him calculate the amount of evaporation that had occurred.
Open bins lost more than half (53 percent) of their water, on average. Bins covered with shade balls lost only a little more than a third (36 percent). But in the bins covered with dodecahedrons, less than 1 percent of the water had evaporated. That’s because the dodecahedrons almost completely covered the surface. If you take a dodecahedron and slice it in half, the cross-section looks like a hexagon, Kenneth notes. And hexagons, if packed perfectly, will completely cover a 2-dimensional surface.
Shade balls typically cut down on algae growth, says Kenneth. And in his tests, the 12-sided “balls” are better here, too. After 10 days, polluting algae that had taken hold in the no-ball bin blocked about 17 percent of the light shining through it. Less algae was in the water covered with regular shade balls. There, algae blocked only about 11 percent of the light shining through the water. And where the dodecahedrons had been used, the water was the clearest of all. Algae blocked less than 4 percent of the light that shone through it, Kenneth reports.
The 12-sided shade balls had another unexpected benefit: They stifled mosquito reproduction. In both the open bins and those with regular shade balls, adult mosquitos could still get to the water’s surface and lay eggs. But in the bins covered with floating 12-sided “balls,” he found no mosquito larvae. That means that changing the shape of shade balls might even cut down on the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and Zika. And in some parts of the country, that could be a big deal, the teen notes.
algae Single-celled organisms, once considered plants (they aren’t). As aquatic organisms, they grow in water. Like green plants, they depend on sunlight to make their food.
dodecahedron A solid figure with 12 sides.
engineering The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.
evaporate To turn from liquid into vapor.
hexagon A geometric shape that has six equal sides. It takes its name from the Greek word for six.
Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) Initially launched in 1950, this competition is one of three created (and still run) by the Society for Science & the Public. Each year now, approximately 1,800 high school students from more than 75 countries, regions, and territories are awarded the opportunity to showcase their independent research at Intel ISEF and compete for an average of $4 million in prizes.
larva (plural: larvae) An immature life stage of an insect, which often has a distinctly different form as an adult.
malaria A disease caused by a parasite that invades the red blood cells. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes, largely in tropical and subtropical regions.
plastic Any of a series of materials that are easily deformable; or synthetic materials that have been made from polymers (long strings of some building-block molecule) that tend to be lightweight, inexpensive and resistant to degradation.
reservoir A large store of something. Lakes are reservoirs that hold water. People who study infections refer to the environment in which germs can survive safely (such as the bodies of birds or pigs) as living reservoirs.
Zika A viral disease that can be transmitted to humans via mosquitoes. About 20 percent of infected people get sick. Symptoms include a slight fever, rash and pinkeye and usually fade quickly. A growing body of evidence suggests that the virus could also cause a devastating birth defect — microcephaly. Evidence suggests it may also cause neurological conditions such as Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Meeting: K. West. Improving shade balls. Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. May 15, 2017. Los Angeles, Calif.