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President Obama checks out the mini-press invented by students at Pinelands Eco Regional High School. Photograph courtesy Pete Souza

Student Innovators Turn Garbage Into Cooking Fuel

One man’s trash may be another man’s … cooking fuel? So says a team of student innovators who’ve invented a mini-press that turns garbage into a firewood alternative.

High school students at Pinelands Eco Regional High School in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, designed an inexpensive wooden press that can squeeze biowaste, such as banana peels and peanut shells, into charcoal-size briquettes for cooking.

The 2.5-foot-wide (0.7-meter-wide) press, targeted toward people in developing countries, addresses two major environmental problems: The carbon dioxide and other pollution caused by burning wood, and deforestation, which is occurring at a rate of about 46 to 58 million square miles (119 to 150 square kilometers) of forest each year—equivalent to 36 football fields a minute, according to WWF. (Related: “Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty.”)

Not only has the invention earned the student team an award from Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge, but it also caught the attention of the President of the United States.

On April 22, Jon Kubricki and Bridget Zarych presented their project to the President at the White House Science Fair, which included a hundred students from more than 40 states. The annual fair—which recognizes the talents of the United States’ future scientists, engineers, and inventors—featured 30 student teams who displayed their projects on the White House’s East Lawn.

The President visited the exhibits, which ranged from a faster test to detect pancreatic cancer to a wind turbine small enough to be installed on a roof.

Afterward, during remarks to the press, Obama said, “And let me just start by saying, in my official capacity as President: This stuff is really cool.”

He then praised Kubricki and Zarych for their invention—joking that he wasn’t creating new technologies at their age—as well as for working to solve environmental problems such as deforestation. (Read the President’s full remarks.)

Making the Mini-Press

The Pinelands team—which also includes Mikaela Crowley and Christopher Naples—came up with the mini-press in eighth grade after studying deforestation and thinking about what it’d be like to lose their school’s namesake, the New Jersey Pinelands—a forested expanse of more than a million acres in the eastern U.S. (Watch videos about forests in danger.)

First, the team identified the main agricultural exports of the ten countries where forests are disappearing the fastest, such as Ghana and the Philippines. People in these countries, they reasoned, could use leftover products from these exports in their mini-presses. For instance, Ghana sells a lot of peanut shells, and the Philippines sells a lot of banana and sugar cane.

“Around here we have a lot of pine needles, so we used pine needles to test our briquettes,” Zarych said in a phone interview.

After successfully producing the briquettes—which generally burn around 20 minutes—”we did an [emissions] test compared to wood, and we found that the cooking briquettes produced less CO2 and carbon monoxide than wood burning,” she said. (Also see “High Fuel Costs Spark Increased Use of Wood for Home Heating.”)

The team used sawdust or newspaper to as a binding agent to keep the briquettes to stay intact. In developing countries, people could use a starchy substance like guava root extract.

Mini-Press in the Real World

Meeting the President may be a high mark, but the student innovators aren’t resting on their laurels. They hope to pilot test the easy-to-ship mini-press abroad—they’ve already given one to a family in Guatemala, Kubricki’s native country.

“Our main goal is to try to produce more presses and send them to orphanages,” said Kubricki, who’s adopted.

The kids also took a moment to reflect on their visit to Washington.

“The White House was a very good experience … it was a high honor,” Kubricki said. Added Zarych: “That was a really fun day. I got to meet a whole bunch of other kids from all over the country.

“And we got to meet the President—that was the best experience ever.”