LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Amidst beautifully clear weather in the City of Angels this week, big awards rained down on teen scientists. Nearly 1,800 were in town to take part in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The top winner, 18-year-old Ivo Zell, received $75,000 for his design of a small “flying wing” drone.
The teen attends Schloss Hansenberg International School in Geisenheim-Johannisberg, Germany. The craft he created and flew was inspired by aeronautical research conducted in his home country early in the last century. His project earned him the Gordon E. Moore award. It is named for Intel’s co-founder.
Two other winners each took home huge awards as well. In all, about one-third of all finalists received some sort of award for their research. Together, those awards totaled roughly $4 million.
ISEF has been honoring young researchers since 1950. Created and run by Society for Science & the Public (SSP), it is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. Now sponsored by Intel, ISEF this year brought together students from 78 countries, regions and territories.
“Congratulations to all our finalists, as well as our top three winners on their extraordinary research projects,” says Maya Ajmera. She’s the president of SSP and publisher of Science News for Students. “As our world grows increasingly complex,” she notes, “we need [their] innovative, transformative ideas to identify new solutions to our world’s most intractable challenges.”
High flying design
On most of today’s aircraft, all parts of the wing — from the body of the aircraft out to the wingtips — generate a relatively smooth distribution of lift. Lift is an upward force that keeps an aircraft aloft. But that lift drops off toward the wingtips, notes Ivo. If you graphed the magnitude of the lift on the wing as seen from the front of the plane, it would look like the top half of an ellipse, he explains.
But early last century, two German brothers thought a different lift pattern might work better. An aircraft that included nothing but a wing would be more stable if the distribution of its lift was bell-shaped, not elliptical. In other words, far more of the lift would be generated nearer the aircraft’s body. But their designs were never tested. So Ivo decided to build his own version of the design to see if it would actually fly. One big benefit of the design: It should be stable enough to fly without needing a sophisticated computer to control it.
Ivo used software to design a small plane with the bell-shaped distribution of lift. Using a 3-D printer, he built the craft’s internal structure from a lightweight plastic. Then, he covered those plastic ribs with thin sheets of balsa, a type of light wood. Finally, he added a plastic coating to help protect the balsa wood from damage. His model had a wingspan of about 1.23 meters (4 feet). And even though the plane’s motor only put out about 400 watts of power, it could fly at speeds up to 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour.
Ivo has not yet tested his aircraft in a wind tunnel. (That’s a facility where engineers perform all sorts of tests on scale models of vehicles.) But he has flown the model using the same simple radio controls that guide many other types of model aircraft. He confirmed that his design is stable enough to fly without complicated computers. A “flying wing” based on Ivo’s design might experience a bit more drag than one with the normal distribution of lift. But, the teen reports, his design is a lot more stable in flight. “The trade-off of slightly more drag but increased stability would be worth it,” he argues.
Ivo intends to study aeronautical engineering. He also will continue to build and fly small drones. Upon being named the event’s top winner, he modestly expressed his surprise and gratitude: “It feels awesome.”
Tracking orbital threats & getting the internet to remote regions
Amber Yang, 18, came up with a way to predict the orbits of space junk circling Earth. A senior at Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park, Fla., her research earned a $50,000 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award.
This teen looked at how clouds of space debris — such as from an exploding satellite — move and rotate. First, she analyzed data about the debris cloud, which had been gathered by radar. She fed those data into a computer that could learn about how clouds of debris move and disperse in space. With data collected during just a 3-hour period (equal to about two orbits of Earth) her technique could estimate where the cloud of junk would be as much as two weeks later.
Amber’s technique could help researchers better schedule rocket launches. After all, no one would want to launch a rocket into a passing cloud of junk traveling at thousands of kilometers per hour. The technique also could help astronauts figure out if the orbit of the International Space Station needed to be shifted to avoid passing junk. (Read more about Amber’s research here.)
Valerio Pagliarino, 17, also won a $50,000 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award. His research addressed how to get internet service to remote areas. The teen’s proposed solution: transmit data signals via lasers mounted on existing electrical transmission towers.
Valerio attends the I.I.S. Nicola Pellati school in Nizza Monferrato, Italy. What inspired him, he says, was his desire to get online in his small town of some 600 people. “Where I live,” he explains, "I have a terrible internet connection."
The teen’s design would use lasers to transmit signals between large high-voltage electricity-transmission towers. Those lasers could use either infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths of light.
Transmission towers already exist to carry power to remote areas over high-voltage wires. So these would be a perfect place to attach the laser equipment, Valerio says. The laser-relay systems would need to be sited every kilometer (0.6 mile) or so. The good news, most transmission towers are already closer together than that. When bad weather interfered with the laser signals, the equipment could automatically adjust the width and focus of the beam to keep the connection strong, he says.
Each laser beam could carry up to 100 gigabits of data per second, Valerio suggests. That could easily provide internet service to a town his size, he says.
“Intel congratulates this year’s winners,” says Rosalind Hudnell, president of the Intel Foundation. “Ivo Zell, Amber Yang and Valerio Pagliarino and all of the participants inspire us with their talent and passion for changing the world.”
Other major Intel ISEF 2017 award winners
The following students each won “best of category” awards worth $5,000 in this year’s competition:
Animal Sciences: Jessica Young, 18 of Palm Beach Central High School in Wellington, Fla.
Behavioral and Social Sciences: Erin Smith, 17 of Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kansas.
Biochemistry: Karina Movsesian, 18, of První české gymnázium v Karlových Varech in Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic.
Biomedical and Health Sciences: Daniel Zhang, 17, of Westview High School in San Diego, Calif.
Biomedical Engineering: Clara Wagner, 18 of Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy in Saginaw, Mich.
Cellular and Molecular Biology: Davey Huang, 17 of Iolani School in Honolulu, Hawaii
Chemistry: Kyle Fridberg, 17, of Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo.
Computational Biology and Bioinformatics: Prathik Naidu, 18, of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va.
Earth and Environmental Sciences: Adam Nayak, 17, of Cleveland High School in Portland, Ore.
Energy: Chemical: Kendra Zhang, 16, of Jericho High School in Jericho, N.Y.
Energy: Physical: Camille Miles, 17, of Niceville High School in Niceville, Fla.
Environmental Engineering: Prashaant Ranganathan, 17, of Carmel Junior College in Jamshedpur, India.
Materials Science: Nicky Wojtania, 17, of Plano West Senior High School in Plano, Texas.
Mathematics: Karthik Yegnesh, 17, of Methacton High School in Eagleville, Pa.
Microbiology: Rahul Subramaniam, 16, of Greenwich High School in Greenwich, Conn.
Plant Sciences: Isabella Bowland, 16, of Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo.
Robotics and Intelligent Machines: Tassilo Schwarz, 18, of Johannes-Heidenhain-Gymnasium Traunreut in Traunreut, Germany
Systems Software: Michael Lee, 18 of Manhasset High School in Manhasset, N.Y.
Translational Medical Science: Jeremiah Pate, 18 of BASIS Oro Valley in Oro Valley, Ariz.
More than a dozen of these “best of category” winners also earned trips overseas. Some will visit research labs in China or India. Others will visit science fairs or attend youth science forums in Europe. Some of the roughly 600 winners at this year's competition even won college scholarships.
Says Hudnell, “As a diverse and inclusive group developing groundbreaking solutions to global challenges, these young people represent the next generation of innovators.”
3-D printing A means of producing physical items — including toys, foods and even body parts — using a machine that takes instructions from a computer program. That program tells the machine how and where to lay down successive layers of some raw material (the “ink”) to create a three-dimensional object.
debris Scattered fragments, typically of trash or of something that has been destroyed. Space debris, for instance, includes the wreckage of defunct satellites and spacecraft.
disperse To spread, often widely. Plants, for example, disperse their seeds to far off sites by allowing them to ride the winds or survive being eaten by animals that travel great distances.
drag A slowing force exerted by air or other fluid surrounding a moving object.
drone A remote-controlled, pilotless aircraft or missile.
ellipse An oval curve that is geometrically a flattened circle. (adj. elliptical) Having the shape of an ellipse, which is an oval shape.
engineer A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.
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.
International Space Station An artificial satellite that orbits Earth. Run by the United States and Russia, this station provides a research laboratory from which scientists can conduct experiments in biology, physics and astronomy — and make observations of Earth.
internet An electronic communications network. It allows computers anywhere in the world to link into other networks to find information, download files and share data (including pictures).
laser A device that generates an intense beam of coherent light of a single color. Lasers are used in drilling and cutting, alignment and guidance, in data storage and in surgery.
lift An upward force on an object. It may occur when an object (such as a balloon) is filled with a gas that weighs less than air; it can also result when a low-pressure area occurs above an object (such as an airplane wing).
orbit The curved path of a celestial object or spacecraft around a star, planet or moon; one complete circuit around a celestial body.
radar A system for calculating the position, distance or other important characteristic of a distant object. It works by sending out periodic radio waves that bounce off of the object and then measuring how long it takes that bounced signal to return. Radar can detect moving objects, like airplanes. It also can be used to map the shape of land — even land covered by ice.
rocket Something propelled into the air or through space, sometimes as a weapon of war. A rocket usually is lofted by the release of exhaust gases as some fuel burns. (v.) Something that flings into space at high speed as if fueled by combustion.
satellite A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.
software The mathematical instructions that direct a computer’s hardware, including its processor, to perform certain operations.
sophisticated A term for something that is advanced, complex and/or elegant.
SSP Short for Society for Science & the Public. This nonprofit organization was created in 1921 and is based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, SSP has been not only promoting public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: The Regeneron Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). SSP also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003).
transmit (n. transmission) To send or pass along.
ultraviolet A portion of the light spectrum that is close to violet but invisible to the human eye.
voltage A force associated with an electric current that is measured in units known as volts. Power companies use high-voltage to move electric power over long distances.
watt A measure of the rate of energy use, flux (or flow) or production. It is equivalent to one joule per second. It describes the rate of energy converted from one form to another — or moved — per unit of time. For instance, a kilowatt is 1,000 watts, and household energy use is typically measured and quantified in terms of kilowatt-hours, or the number of kilowatts used per hour.
wavelength The distance between one peak and the next in a series of waves, or the distance between one trough and the next. Visible light — which, like all electromagnetic radiation, travels in waves — includes wavelengths between about 380 nanometers (violet) and about 740 nanometers (red). Radiation with wavelengths shorter than visible light includes gamma rays, X-rays and ultraviolet light. Longer-wavelength radiation includes infrared light, microwaves and radio waves.
wind tunnel A facility used to study the effects of air moving past solid objects, which often are scale models of real-size items such as airplanes and rockets. The objects typically are covered with sensors that measure aerodynamic forces like lift and drag. Also, sometimes engineers inject tiny streams of smoke into the wind tunnel so that airflow past the object is made visible.