Quest for Clean Energy: Teens spend summer researching in labs at PSU

Special to the Morning Sun / news@morningsun.net
Several high school students are spending this summer researching renewable energy at Pittsburg State University.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Isabella Earp is a student at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, but two days a week she makes the four-hour round trip to Pittsburg for a unique educational opportunity that offers a chance to help find new clean and renewable energy sources. 

Along with seven other high school students, she is part of an internship program at the Kansas Polymer Research Center at Pittsburg State University funded by grants through PSU's Polymer Chemistry program, as well as a NASA Kansas Space Grant and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. 

“I’m in an environmental club in high school and am excited about anything STEM and the ability to continue learning that here,” she said. “Renewable energy is a big topic and doing this kind of work will give me the edge.”  

It’s also giving her $8 an hour, 20 hours a week, in a more intriguing job, she noted, than her other one at McDonald’s.   

Closer to Pittsburg, Columbus High School Senior Parker Neely didn’t have to think twice about making the commute to Pittsburg for the opportunity offered by the internship program. 

“I love chemistry, I love physics, and Pitt State has one of the best polymer chemistry programs in the nation,” he said. “It’s worth it.”  

Earp and Neely, along with local students Ashlan Brooks, Anjali Gupta, Madeline Ellis, and Cassia Allison of Pittsburg High School, and Kamilla Frevele, a senior at Southeast High School in Cherokee, are synthesizing a new material, printed by 3D printers, to be used in super capacitors, batteries, and fuel cells. They’re joined by Peyton Klamar, an undergraduate student at PSU, and Edilawit Mehari, an undergraduate student at Cottey College.  

The teens are driven by two things: the desire to gain experience before the next step of their academic journey, and the desire to do something about the environment.  

“It feels like I’m doing something valuable to help fix things,” Neely said.  

“I want to make a difference,” said Allison. “Our generation knows we have to.”  

“It makes me feel important to do something that could make a change in our environment,” said Gupta.  

In the lab  

The students are conducting their research in Lab 118 and Lab 121 in the heart of the KPRC, located at the east edge of campus next to the university’s softball and baseball fields. 

They’re guided by scientists who have come to Pittsburg from around the world to work in the center. Here, those scientists collaborate with industrial partners, organizations, state and federal agencies, and producer associations to develop and commercialize intellectual property. Their primary focuses: polyurethanes, bio-based materials, polymer foams, and electroactive materials.  

The labs give students access to cutting edge equipment like a scanning electron microscope, X-ray diffraction, infrared spectrometer, thermal analyzer, and equipment used for synthesis and electrochemical testing.   

As they work, they’re inspired by stories of what students already have helped discover at the KPRC: Last year, two high school students worked with Associate Professor Ram Gupta to find a solution to convert biowaste — things like pomegranate shells, used coffee grounds, and soybean stems, leaves, and shells — into an energy storage device.  

Other students have helped developed eco-friendly flame retardant foam that can be used in commercial applications such as construction and automobiles. The fuel cells this year’s students are researching could be used in electric cars.   

“Reducing the cost would make them affordable to the masses, while improving their charge would make them more travel friendly,” Prof. Gupta said.  

The skills the students are learning also have a direct application to the workforce in Kansas, where nearly half a million people are employed in plastics and polymer industries. Beyond Kansas, the sky’s the limit, Gupta said, when it comes to these students finding lucrative jobs in the field — what they’re doing is the future.  

“It’s pretty amazing what’s happening here,” Ellis said. “It’s exciting to be part of it.”