PLTW Students Invent Unlimited Source of Energy for National Competition

Pratham Bhatt and Divit Endal are freshmen at the Middlesex County Academy for Allied Health and Biomedical Sciences in Woodbridge, New Jersey, and are currently enrolled in the PLTW Biomedical Science program. Pratham volunteers outside of school and is an active member in Model UN and HOSA - Future Health Professionals. Divit is currently enrolled in many activities and research opportunities at Genspace, and volunteers as a tutor at a local hospital.

Recently, we participated in the 2019 PLTW Engineering Design Competition made possible by Chevron, John Deere, and FedEx. We won first place in the national competition with our innovative idea: Artificial Photosynthesis.

Our goal was to create a new, unique, and innovative solution – "The Energy of Tomorrow" – that could be easily implemented and serve as a sustainable source of energy for the future. We realized that if we could replicate a natural process such as photosynthesis by using carbon dioxide, we could not only regulate carbon dioxide emissions, but we could also create an unlimited source of energy.

After thoroughly conducting research and addressing all aspects of the issue, we developed our solution, which consisted of five main parts:

1. An air filter that will filter out carbon dioxide from the air
2. A vacuum that will suck this filtered air
3. A Metal-Organic Framework (MOF) storage area where the carbon dioxide would be deposited
4. A photoreactor that will hit the carbon dioxide and MOF with sunlight or blue light to convert it to solar fuel
5. A solar fuel storage area where the solar fuel produced will be stored

The product of artificial photosynthesis is solar fuel, which allows us to replace fossil fuels in an effective manner. Solar fuel is easy to transport and create with our innovation, potentially solving a major issue in our world.

Throughout our journey, we encountered many challenges but were able to overcome them. First and foremost, we were unable to think of a solution. We came up with many ideas, including carbon-based solar panels, but none of them clearly addressed the four main inhibiting factors to the creation of a new renewable energy source – affordability, accessibility, intermittency, and complexity. Finally, we thought of the idea when we were learning about photosynthesis, and it seemed perfect.

That’s when we arrived at our second issue: How can we convert carbon dioxide to fuel? After conducting research, we found that if carbon dioxide is paired with certain molecules, it could be converted to fuel with the addition of light. 

In order to ensure that our model worked, we needed data. After digging around the internet, we found the results of a similar experiment with a bare photoreactor. We had to obtain tests from another source, because the materials necessary were not easy to access outside of a laboratory or factory setting. When we later compared it to our solution, we were able to amplify the products made by using extra technology that heavily increases carbon dioxide concentration in the photoreactor.

After taking part in this competition and our PLTW classes, we learned many new concepts and lessons that we can apply in the future. Not only did we learn effective problem-solving skills, but also how to stay organized and manage our time wisely. 

With the deadline approaching for the contest, we created a schedule that would allow us to finish with time left to review our end product. Throughout this process, we also hit dead ends; finding ways to overcome them allowed us to approach the situation differently. We also learned how to effectively communicate with each other over the course of this competition and school year.

To all new PLTW students: the courses and opportunities provided through PLTW help us excel not just academically but also in real-life situations, so take advantage of them. We would like to thank PLTW for the opportunity to take part in this competition; our PLTW advisor, Ms. Wilhelmy, for guiding us not only in our Principles of Biomedical Science class but also in this competition; and our principal, Mrs. Sullivan, for being there every step of the journey.

PLTW’s blog intends to serve as a forum for ideas and perspectives from across our network. The opinions expressed are those of each guest author.