Austin Wang Talks Microbial Fuel Cells and Winning the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair
An avid science enthusiast, Austin Wang began working in the laboratories of Dr. William Mohn, Dr. Susan Baldwin, and Dr. Steven Hallam at the University of British Columbia while still a student at David Thompson Secondary in Vancouver. In 2016, Austin traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, taking home the grand prize of $75,000 for his work on microbial fuel cells. We sat down with Austin to discuss his project, and how age should never be an obstacle to great research.
Last year you placed first in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for your project on microbial fuel cells. Can you tell us about your motivation for the project?
Absolutely! Humans have a huge problem with sewage and wastewater, since these take a lot of energy to process and treat. The irony is that wastewater itself actually contains a lot of energy. We just need to find really efficient ways to extract it. The technology that I work with is called the microbial fuel cell, which is a bio-electrochemical system that uses bacteria to convert waste products into electrical energy. The problem with existing microbial fuel cells is that they don’t generate a lot of power, so they’re not that cost effective to implement. There are ways to make them generate more power, but most of these involve really expensive materials like graphene or nanoparticles that don’t scale well. So there’s a problem with the power to cost ratio.
In order to improve this technology, I wanted to enhance the performance of the microbes themselves by engineering a really fantastic set of bacteria. I wanted bacteria with a performance enhancement that would allow the fuel cell to generate more power without it having to be any more expensive to create. That was the motivation behind my project.
How did you design the bacteria to be more efficient at producing energy?
To accomplish this, I put E. coli carrying a library of modified genes into microbial fuel cells. I then let the microbial fuel cell select the enhanced bacteria itself. Over time, the bacteria that don’t carry genes that allow them to perform better get outcompeted by those that do. So those bacteria that are able to generate more current by transferring electrons and generating more electricity have an energy advantage in the system. It’s an artificial selection process. You can then take out the bacteria and sequence the genes that gave them the power advantage.
Once I’d identified the bacteria containing these modified genes that provided an energy advantage, I pooled them together to form a consortium of bacteria that can be put in a microbial fuel cell to generate more power. Eventually the goal is to see how these bacteria as a community evolve over time.
This level of science isn’t generally taught at the high school level. How did you become interested in microbial fuel cells at such a young age, and eventually land a position in a university research laboratory?
It didn’t happen overnight. I started working with microbial fuel cells in grade nine. I was surfing the internet, and I stumbled across a page on them. I thought they were the coolest thing ever! So I built a little microbial fuel cell in my backyard using a cashew container filled with soil. Immediately I started noticing some really interesting things about it. With a normal battery, the power decreases over time, but with these microbial fuel cells, they actually start to develop more power over time.
I started to get really curious about this, so I got in contact with Dr. Lindsay Eltis at UBC. He got me in touch with some grad students in the Mohn lab, and when I asked why this was happening, they said that it’s likely because the fuel cell is selecting for the enhanced bacteria. I then started wondering whether I could identify those bacteria, and I was told I could do some pyrosequencing. That’s how I started to work in labs.
You’re currently completing your first year of your undergraduate degree at Princeton. Have you been able to continue working on this project while in school?
Unfortunately I can’t bring my entire gene library with me to Princeton, so I’m going back and forth between Vancouver and New Jersey whenever I can. That’s one of the things that’s complicated the project a lot. It was supposed to be a lot shorter than what it’s become. Fortunately I set up this entire summer to continue working on it in Vancouver.
Has this research project had an influence on the field of study that you wish to pursue at university?
Definitely. I entered Princeton with the idea that I would pursue molecular biology or chemical and biological engineering, because it was really similar to the research that I did in highschool. But now that I’m in first year, I’ve had the opportunity to discover a lot of new areas. I’ve actually found that I’m really interested in studying computer science in addition to biology. So right now the plan is to pursue the two together – maybe in the form of bioinformatics.
What was the most memorable part of your experience at the International Science Fair?
There were 1400 projects from 77 different countries at the science fair, and the the best part of the experience was just being able to talk to like-minded students of the same age from countries all around the world, and to see the really cool research they were doing. I was blown away by some of the science.
In general, I think there’s something really awesome about young people doing research. They don’t really have a sense of what truly is or isn’t possible, so it allows them to come up with really interesting project ideas that trained scientists might overlook or pass up. It really reinforces the idea that you’re never too young to do great things.
Prior to you placing first in the 2016 competition, Raymond Wang and Nicole Ticea of Vancouver placed first and second in 2015. Why do you think there are so many winners that come out of Vancouver?
That’s a really, really good question that I think more people should be asking! It’s definitely not a coincidence that a lot of great science is coming out of Vancouver. Our city has won a disproportionately large number of awards at the International Science Fair for the number of people that we send. I think it comes down to developing a culture for science within the youth community. Once you have a few young people doing cool research and winning big prizes, younger people look up to it. And it snowballs. The more people that do it, the more people around them that start to get involved as well. It’s all about building a culture of youth science.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Austin! The science community here in Vancouver is definitely excited to see where you go next in your scientific career!