Academy, local teen come together for biofuel research

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
By pre-school she had all of the planets memorized. By kindergarten she had crafted her first science project. Since then, Sara Volz, a junior at Cheyenne Mountain High School, has earned regional, state and international science fair awards and is conducting research at Academy on the exploration of algae as a biofuel.

"I'm always curious about learning how things are working and I'm never satisfied with something unless I have an explanation for it," Volz said.

Volz is the youngest person to work in the Life Sciences Research Center here, having started in December at 15 years old. Through the cooperative research and development agreement, Volz can work with researchers, use specialized equipment and test her research for the next three years.

"It's a benefit to the Air Force because she's doing Air Force-related work for us," said Dr. Donald Veverka, director of the Life Sciences Research Center. "The other part of this is the science, technology, engineering and mathematics aspect; it's a great opportunity for us to give young people exposure doing science and more specifically, research."

Volz conducts manipulations of particular algae called, nannochloropsis salina. Her experiments aim to find factors that will cause the algae to produce more oil for the lab.

"The overall goal is to increase oil use, so that the oil can be used to make biofuel," Volz said. "You've probably heard biofuel being made from things like soybeans or corn, but algae can grow more densely and have a much higher oil dosage. It's a better choice in the long-term but still needs a lot of development before it can really work."

Volz worked on her experiments at home until she met Ron Furstenau, from the Chemistry Department, who introduced Volz to Ververka. Through sponsored programs, the CRADA was set up for Volz to use the laboratory here.

"There's probably been a local agreement with other high schools, but not like this," Ververka said. "It's different because as you can appreciate, there are different angles in which, if she comes up with a brilliant idea, she's on Air Force property and using Air Force facilities."

Volz works with advanced equipment for the algae, such as a cleaning station, to prevent bacteria or contamination as well as a centrifuge to skim down samples. Because algae has a slimy texture, the centrifuge runs at a high speed to force samples of algae out as a solid.

"It's almost a peanut butter paste so that we can do further experiments on it," Ververka said.

Volz said that her biggest challenge has been the lack of equipment to further her research and said she is thankful she can use resources at the Academy.

"I've been working on algae for years now and it's finding places to analyze and do my work that's been tricky," Volz said. "The Academy has been a great environment, and I've really enjoyed working with researchers here."

Volz created her first science fair project in sixth grade, started to explore the topic of bio energy in seventh and began research on algae in ninth.

"My passion stems from my general love of science," Volz said. "I'm really interested in algae specifically, because it merges my two favorite fields which are biochemistry and microbiology. I also like the idea that it can help with global pollution and energy usage today."

Sara's mother, Pattye Volz, said she is amazed by the level of science and quality of staff at the Academy. She said she is grateful that Sara can do things at that Academy that otherwise wouldn't be possible.

"She has spent several years trying to get somebody to let her do the work that she wants to do," said Volz. "She's only 16, but she's been begging for this opportunity for a long time."

Pattye said she appreciates that the staff can help guide Sara but not do the work for her.

"She's worked hard, and she loves the research," Volz said. "Having such a deep interest and keeping her mind engaged has been good for her."

Sara plans to continue research on bio energy and will conduct research for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for six weeks in December.