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Whiz kid brews biofuels in Air Force Academy lab


POSTED: Saturday, March 31, 2012 - 7:00am

UPDATED: Saturday, March 31, 2012 - 7:04am

Several dozen beakers filled with goopy, green and brown liquids sit cluttered together a counter top inside laboratory on the US Air Force Academy.

The containers each hold algae that naturally produce oil.

Researcher Sara Volz carefully measures the various beakers to measure which mixture creates the most oil.

"The big thing I'm looking at is the effects of different medium formulations, so what we're growing the algae in, to see if it will impact positively, hopefully, the oil yields," she explains.

Sara hopes her work will eventually lead to a sustainable means for producing bio fuels. But she has a couple of personal tasks to accomplish first, starting with high school graduation.

"School can get a little boring during the day," the 16 year old scientist admits.

So, twice a week she gets to leave early from Cheyenne Mountain High School to go to the Academy's lab.

Sara plans to enter her research as a science fair project.

"I get in here at about 2:00 and I can work until 5:00," she said.

The Air Force has been looking into drawing oil from algae and was happy to have Sara's help.

"We use a lot of jet fuel," explains professor Don Veverka, Ph.D. the director of the Academy's Life Science's Department. "So there's obviously a lot of interest for that."

On the other hand, Sara needed a lab because there's only so much you can do at home.

"Here I'm able to approach it much more systematically and methodically than I'm able to do with my limited resources."

It took about six months for the Academy and the high school to work out an agreement that allowed Sara to access the lab.

Her project is roughly the equivalent of a senior year project for a cadet.

In fact, the professors here tend to treat her like an advanced cadet.

"There are many times when we're working in the lab that I have to remind myself she's a high school student, not a graduate student," said Chemistry Professor Timm Knoerzer, Ph.D.

While it may seem that there's no challenge too difficult for her, Sara admits there's one high school class she struggles with.

"Spanish. I don't like Spanish very much," she says.

Luckily, she can document her experiments in English.

Sara has competed in and won multiple national and international science fairs.

In September, she was listed as one of the top 10 teen inventors in the US by Popular Science Magazine.

After graduation Sara plans to study biochemistry in college.

She plans to apply at M.I.T., Harvard and Princeton, among others.

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