This month, Anderson students Alex Crisara and Alex “Jahan” Rabii were among the elite few across the globe who won big at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, Ariz. Crisara, a senior, and Rabii, a junior, won third place in the materials and bioengineering category for their project, “Efficient Algae-Based Life Support for Long Duration Space Flight.”
ISEF is the largest pre-college science and engineering competition in the world, and Crisara and Rabii competed against approximately 1,600 young scientists from more than 70 countries, regions and territories, including four other students from Austin ISD. In addition to the honors that come with placing at the prestigious science competition, these AISD scientists also took home $6,000 and shares of stock in United Technologies Corporation.
For more than two years, Crisara and Rabii have slowly chipped away at their project, which focuses on using algae to create a life support system for use on the international space station. For their project, the Anderson students designed a two-part system that uses algae not only to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting it to breathable oxygen gas but also to purify water, effectively reducing water consumption on space stations by 74 percent and eliminating more than $50 million from the annual operating costs.
“With budget cuts and things like that, the idea of humans going to Mars is very limited,” Crisara said. “The cool thing about this technology is it enables that idea to still be relevant.”
While their friends were attending sporting events or playing video games, Crisara and Rabii were spending their formative years designing, hypothesizing and testing this system they say is a game-changer in the world of aerospace. The confident duo used the concept of photosynthesis to create a complex, panel-based photobioreactor with one strain of algae that closes the life support loop, a step further from where their research was when they first presented, and won, at ISEF two years ago as a sophomore and a freshman.
“Judges have been surprised by how simple our concept to solve this problem was,” Crisara said. “It is really cool when people see how dynamic the concept is.”
Even though the idea is “simple” the production wasn’t effortless, especially since their laundry list of necessary materials included blowtorches, hazardous chemicals, algae from Switzerland and “massive amounts of plastic.” They endured an elaborate scavenger hunt for supplies to build a system they weren’t entirely sure would be effective.
“We had a few nights where it was 2 or 3 in the morning on day 20 of working on the project where we sat on the sofa and wondered if we were in over our heads,” Rabii said. “There was a lot of questioning whether we were putting a lot of time into something that would even work.”
But it did work, as they saw when they got their first set of data back after testing the system.
“It felt great when that happened,” Crisara remembered. “But we knew we had to keep crunching through this because even though this piece worked, the next piece might not work. There was a series of six to seven weeks where we were putting in 40 hours a week testing the project on top of our regular school stuff.”
Crisara and Rabii said balancing their time was the most difficult aspect to master over the course of the research.
“It cuts into a lot of stuff,” Rabii said. “We spent two-and-a-half years planning this, from research to testing to assembly, and there came a point that felt like we were saying ‘goodbye homework, goodbye sleep, goodbye friends, hello science project.’”
But as the project came to a close, both boys said the work, the money and the time investment paid off 10-fold, a sentiment mirrored by their recent placing at the ISEF competition.