Meghana Bollimpalli, a senior this fall at Little Rock's Central High, is a musician, a debater and a competitive swimmer. But first and foremost, she is a scientific researcher who turned molasses and tea grounds into a total of $58,000 in prizes at an international science fair.
Bollimpalli, 17, is one of the two Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award winners to come out of the 2018 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair held last month in Pittsburgh.
That $50,000 award was one of the top three presented at the event, which attracted student researchers from 75 countries.
She and a student from Bothell, Wash., received the Young Scientists award while a 19-year-old from Sydney won the top $75,000 award for a design and model of an autonomous robotic window cleaner for commercial buildings.
Bollimpalli's award was for her work in developing low-cost electrodes that could ultimately lead to the expanded, less costly use of super-capacitors -- which are used as energy sources in devices including cars, medical equipment and other electronics. She received an additional $8,000 in prizes in the chemistry category of the fair.
"There is an increase in the demand for energy due to the alarming rate at which we are using our nonrenewable resources and the increase in population worldwide," Bollimpalli said Friday about the motivation for her project, which is titled "Green Synthesis of Phosphorous, Nitrogen Co-Doped Carbon Materials from Renewable Resources for Super-capacitor Applications via Microwave Assisted Technique."
She said that there is a need for an economically and environmentally feasible way to store energy.
"Super-capacitors are devices that address this demand due to their great properties such as portability, long cycle lifetime, and high-energy density. But the problem is, in order for a super-capacitor to actually work, it needs a great electrode," she said.
"The electrodes available in the market today can cost thousands of dollars due to the expensive metals such as platinum and palladium that are being used. To address this problem, in my research I was able to develop carbon-based electrodes for under $1, using inexpensive byproducts such as tea powder, molasses and tannin."
Bollimpalli has been doing scientific research since she was in middle school. That's when a trip to India -- where she was born and lived until she was 3 -- inspired her to look for ways to provide filtered, clean water for places in the world where it was hard to come by. Her ongoing interest in environmental science was born, and her initial science projects were in the fields of water pollution and bio-plastics.
"This year I wanted to do something related to energy demand," she said.
Delving into that by attending seminars and reading academic journals, she concluded that expensive metals in electrodes that put the cost of an electrode at $4,000 or more restrict the use of super-capacitors as electrical energy sources. That steered her to exploring carbon-based electrodes.
She said she knew that molasses, tea powder and tannin -- a component frequently associated with red wine -- were all sources of carbon.
"I decided to try those out," she said. "The first few months that I did this, it didn't really work. I had to go back to the papers, reading, trying to figure out what went wrong, changing the temperatures, changing the pressure levels, trying to get a reaction. One day the reaction actually worked. From there I began optimizing it."
Molasses from the grocery store, boiled-down grounds from a cup of hot tea, and tannin were mixed with different sources of phosphorus and nitrogen to produce a powder coating for electrode-like materials, giving the electrodes the properties typically produced with more expensive metals like platinum.
That's where the microwave came in, as well as assistance from mentors in the chemistry department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She said she knew from previous science projects that microwave radiation available in commercial devices could speed up chemical reactions.
That wasn't something she could do in the kitchen at her home.
"We needed a fume hood and to be able to make sure that the reaction was contained in case something went wrong," Bollimpalli said about the help she received at the university.
"Nothing in the sciences is really independent work. It's more teamwork -- putting a lot of ideas together," she said. "I'm really thankful for teachers, my school, parents and my mentors at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock who helped me out with this. I couldn't have done it without them."
Bollimpalli has a history of winning science awards. She won the Best in Show at the 2018 Southwest Energy Arkansas Science and Engineering Fair in April. In her sophomore year, she won fourth place in the state fair and went on to win a first-place special award from NASA and a third-place award in the category of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the international competition.
Mark Bland, associate professor in the University of Central Arkansas' biology department and director of the Arkansas science fair, said Friday that he believed that the quality of Bollimpalli's project at the fair in April was such that she would be "strongly competitive" at the international science fair.
"However, to be selected as the recipient of the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award, which carries a $50,000 prize, is an incredible accomplishment," Bland said.
"I am proud of all of our students who participate in the science fair program, particularly those who are chosen to compete at the international level," he added. "I am especially proud of Meghana -- she is a very bright, talented, and articulate student, and I can hardly wait to see what she comes up with next year."
Nancy Rousseau, principal at Central High, also praised Bollimpalli.
"Meghana is an exceptionally intelligent, detail-oriented and creative young lady. We are so proud of her and proud for her!" Rousseau said in a written statement. "This is an amazing accomplishment and honor for Central, Little Rock and the State of Arkansas."
Bollimpalli is the oldest of the four children of Venkat Bollimpalli, a systems software engineer at Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Madhavi Bollimpalli. She attended Terry and Williams Magnet elementaries in the Little Rock School District and LISA Academy, a charter school in west Little Rock, before attending Central.
The teenager, whose high energy is apparent even in a telephone conversation, has been involved in debate and the Model United Nations organization.
She is president of the National Honor Society and started the Central chapter of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Launch Club. She mentors middle school students in their science projects, swims competitively, plays the piano and violin, and speaks Telugu, a language native to India. She just completed a school year in which she took eight Advanced Placement college credit-bearing courses and will take five more next school year.
The smaller number of those rigorous courses will give her time to focus on college applications. She hasn't selected a university yet but does hope to earn a doctorate in chemistry with a minor in environmental science.
Bollimpalli said she intends to continue her research into either the electrodes or another topic and return to the state and international fairs in 2019.
Her immediate future includes a third trip to a different science competition, the annual Genius Olympiad in Oswego, N.Y. She has been an award-winner in her previous two trips there.
She also has an internship at the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality this summer and will spend a couple weeks at Yale University for the Yale Young Global Scholars program.
Metro on 06/04/2018
Print Headline: Central student racks up honors for science work