Google Thinks These 20 Teenagers Could Change Our World for the Better

These kids from around the globe have created innovative new technologies, from malaria-testing apps to water-saving agriculture systems

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Winners at last year's Google Science Fair

Today Google announced the 16 global finalists of its 2016 Science Fair. These teens, who hail from Brazil to Bangladesh, Martha's Vineyard to Malaysia, Singapore to South Africa, have created an astonishing variety of programs, projects and devices. They've built a better rocket, found ways of fighting drought, developed new tests for cancer and much, much more. And none of them are older than 18 (makes you ask "what have I been doing with myself lately," doesn't it?). Here, we introduce you to the finalists, one of whom will become the Grand Prize winner, snagging a $50,000 scholarship, while several others will receive smaller prizes. 

Maria Vitória Valoto, 16, Londrina, Brazil: Making Milk Lactose-Free

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(Google Science Fair)

Some 65 percent of the global population is lactose intolerant, meaning they have a reduced ability to produce the enzyme that allows the body to digest milk. Maria, 16, from Brazil, a country with at least 50 million lactose intolerant citizens, noticed that lactose-free milk was twice as expensive as regular, and that lactose enzyme pills from the pharmacy were also too pricey for the average Brazilian. Would it be possible, she wondered, to create a cheap, reusable product that hydrolyzed the lactose in milk, making it drinkable for everyone? In a multi-stage experiment, she developed capsules that do just that. The capsules, which are not edible, can be reused for up to a week, though their efficacy declines by the end. The capsules cost just pennies—Maria estimates that they could save a lactose-intolerant Brazilian family the equivalent of nearly $225 a year. 

Ashton Cofer (14), Julia Bray (14) and Luke Clay (14), Columbus, Ohio, United States: Turning Styrofoam Trash into Useful Water Filters

On a recent visit to Central America, a member of this team of 14-year-olds was disturbed to see how much polystyrene foam (ie, Styrofoam) trash polluted the beaches. Later, the three Columbus, Ohio natives learned more about the scourge of polystyrene foam litter—millions of pounds of the product are thrown away in the U.S. each year, and it’s very difficult to recycle. So the sustainability-minded teens decided to come up with a solution. They created a method of converting polystyrene foam (which is 90 percent carbon) into carbon filters. The result kills two birds with one stone: it reduces the amount of polystyrene foam in the environment while also purifying dirty water. In addition to being Google Science Fair finalists, the three eighth graders also recently won first place at the LEGO League World Championship for robotics. They all hope to be scientists or engineers one day. We think they already are. 

Nikhil Gopal, 15, New Jersey, United States: Creating Cheap, Accessible Malaria Tests

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(Google Science Fair)

Nikhil, 15, from New Jersey, has personal experience with malaria, a disease which kills nearly half a million people per year. His aunt in rural India contracted the disease, and her doctor didn’t have access to the technology needed to analyze the level of parasites in her blood, information important to knowing the correct medication and dose to give a patient. She nearly died. So Nikhil set out to create an affordable test to analyze blood parasite levels. His solution is an app that works with a smartphone and three cheap pieces of equipment—a photo box, a disk similar in shape to a CD and a hand-cranked centrifuge. Costing less than $50, the product, Nikhil says, works as well as hospital equipment costing $100,000. The world has already taken note—Nikhil is currently in talks with the World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to share his app globally. 

Kiara Nirghin, 16, Johannesburg, South Africa: Fighting Drought with Orange Peels

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(Google Science Fair)

As a South African, 16-year-old Kiara has first-hand experience with drought: the country is currently dealing with longtime record rainfall shortages, which have gravely endangered the food supply. Kiara wondered if it would be possible to create a product to hold water in soil, without using expensive, non-biodegradable, potentially dangerous chemicals. Her solution? Orange peel. Her research showed that the humble peel, usually thrown away, has incredible water-retaining power and can be turned into a powerful agent for maintaining soil moisture. Kiara’s interest in agricultural science extends all the way to its final product: cooking. A passionate cook, she’s fascinated by molecular gastronomy. She hopes to one day be both an agricultural scientist and a molecular gastronomy chef. 

Shriank Kanaparti, 16, Bangalore, India: The End of Lost Keys

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(Google Science Fair)

The rapidly growing problem of Alzheimer's and other memory disorders means an increasing number of people have difficulty keeping track of everyday items like keys and glasses. Shriank, 16, tackled the issue by developing a wearable device called KeepTab that utilizes the Google Now personal assistant to track and find such items. The device uses a camera to capture images around the wearer, then uses cloud-based deep learning to recognize which items are discrete objects. The user can then take advantage of Google Now to "ask" for the item's location. In ordinary light, the device has a 90 percent find rate. Shriank, an avid hackathon participant, hopes to use his love of programming to create more problem-solving devices in the future. 

Marion Pang Wan Rion (18), Joy Ang Jing Zhi (18) and Sonia Arumuganainar (18), Singapore: A Paint-On Supercapacitor

The energy-storage devices known as supercapacitors outperform batteries in lifespan, efficiency and many other ways. But, like most electronics, they're stiff, which means they generally must be mounted on something hard and flat. These three 18-year-old Singaporeans have created a totally new kind of supercapacitor, which can be literally painted on nearly any surface. The teens hope the product, which uses graphene paint and gel electrolyte, can be used to enhance sustainable energy in things like cell phones and electric cars. The three plan to pursue different fields of science in the future: biomedical research for Marion, chemical engineering for Sonia and chemistry for Joy. They plan to use their winnings to help pay for college.

Mphatso Simbao, 18, Lusaka, Zambia: Helping Farmers Afford to Feed People

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In drought-struck Zambia, farmers are struggling to maintain their farms—and the food supply for the nation. Mphatso, 18, thought farmers could benefit from more affordable supplies, such as fertilizers. He developed a portable station that can make nitrogen fertilizer and green pesticide using cheap, easily available ingredients like charcoal and leaves. As part of his research, he interviewed the Zambia's Minister of Transport to better understand the workings and needs of rural farms. His system has the potential to save farmers money and enhance their production, meaning more food for everyone. Mphatso, who has long been interested in issues of poverty in Africa, hopes to continue his path as an inventor. 

Anushka Naiknaware, 13, Portland, Oregon, United States: A Wireless Solution for Chronic Wounds

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(Google Science Fair)

One of the fair's youngest winners, 13-year-old Anushka was interested in developing a solution for a problem many young people are probably either unaware of or find off-putting: care of chronic wounds. For people living with complex wounds that don't easily heal, wound care is a difficult, time-consuming process that's hard to monitor. If you change the bandage too much, it can make the wound worse, in addition to causing pain. So Anushka created a sensor that monitors wounds wirelessly, letting patients and doctors know the wound's condition without direct examination. The sensor, which can be printed on an Inkjet, uses biopolymer chitosan (a type of polysaccharide, or long-chain carbohydrate) and carbon nanoparticles. The 13-year-old Portlander, who has already won multiple science fairs, hopes to attend Stanford, Harvard or MIT. 

Nishita Belur, 13, San Jose, California, United States: Better Car Quality Control Through Engineering

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(Google Science Fair)

Though she's still years away from her driver's license, 13-year-old Californian Nishita is fascinated by car production. When she learned that quality control for cars' exteriors is still done by a subjective visual assessment, she wondered if the process could be automated. So she developed a scanning system to detect surface defects on metal using laser light reflection. She plans to add to this by creating a robotic arm to hold the sensor. Eventually, she hopes the system will be implemented in auto factories, making the quality control process more efficient and less wasteful, and potentially leading to more affordable cars. Perhaps in time for her own driving test? 

Zheng Xin Yong, 18, Seremban, Malaysia: Catching Lung Cancer Early to Save Lives

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(Google Science Fair)

Lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide, is usually discovered so late its victims have little chance of survival. But people with lung cancer, 18-year-old Zheng learned, have a unique chemical "signature" in their breath. Inspired by a teacher diagnosed with the disease, the young Malaysian created a sensor to detect these chemicals. He tested the sensor on three groups by having them breathe into a tube: lung cancer patients, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and healthy nonsmokers. The sensor could accurately detect which patients had lung cancer, giving results in less than 10 minutes at a cost of around $1 per test. Fascinated by science ever since his father gave him a light microscope at the age of 8, Zheng's role model is Marie Curie. He hopes to pursue biomedical engineering. 

Anika Cheerla, 14, Cupertino, California, United States:Better Breast Cancer Testing

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(Google Science Fair)

Disturbed by the shortcomings of standard breast cancer tests, this 14-year-old Californian took the matter into her own hands. She used her coding skills to develop an automated system for analyzing digital mammograms and predicting future cancer risk. The system takes out the subjective element of a human radiologist and, Anika hopes, results in a lower false-positive rate than current methods. The high school freshman has "no idea" what she wants to be when she grows up (totally fair!), but hopes winning the Google prize will bring recognition to her project and potentially help women in the future. 

Ryan Mark, 15, Arlington, Virginia, United States: Using a Smartphone to Identify the Unknown

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(Google Science Fair)

This 15-year-old Virginia native developed a smartphone program to analyze and recognize unknown substances—food, cloth, metal, plants and so on. His system involves putting the smartphone in a box to take both normal and infrared pictures of the sample in question. These images are then processed through his program to recognize the sample's color and shape. His tests so far have been highly accurate. He hopes his system might one day be a low-cost way of detecting disease by recognizing things like cancer cells. The longtime computer aficionado hopes to attend Carnegie Mellon University one day. 

Saliha Rehanaz, 15, Bangladesh: Building a Better Sanitary Pad

Menstrual hygiene products are necessary, but often wasteful—pads can sit in landfills for years without biodegrading. So 15-year-old Saliha decided to develop a better product. She tested six materials to create her eco-friendly "Sreshto" pads—leaves, cotton, jute, coconut husk, hay and wood. Jute and coconut husk were the winners, proving the most absorbant when tested with a mixture of water and arrowroot designed to resemble the properties of menstrual blood. The jute and husk are encased in a cotton wrapper, creating a pad that can be used for up to six hours and that biodegrades within two years. Saliha's idol is Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover DNA but was never recognized in her lifetime for her contribution. We're glad Saliha is already being recognized for hers! 

Charlie Fenske, 16, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, United States: Making Rockets More Efficient

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(Google Science Fair)

This Massachusetts teen, who's been building rockets since he was in the sixth grade, has created a more efficient way of controlling rockets. Using 3D printed rocket models, he tested various kinds of fins and guidance systems in a wind tunnel and evaluated their efficiency. He discovered that synthetic jet actuators, aeroacoustic devices currently used in heavy aircraft but not in rockets, were the best. His discovery could help rockets perform better and use less fuel. The high schooler, who takes a ferry to school every day from his island home, would like to work at a commerical space flight company one day. 

Mansha Fatima, 15, Hyderabad, India: More Rice to Go Around

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(Google Science Fair)

As in many parts of the world, rice is a staple food in India, home to 15-year-old Mansha. But the rice growing process can waste a huge amount of water, a major problem in an increasingly drought-prone world. Mansha has used her scientific knowledge to help remedy the situation by creating an automatic water management system that tracks data on the rice plants in each paddy and keeps crops from being over-watered. Her system could save up to 30 percent on water usage. The high schooler, who loves tennis and travel, hopes to pursue a STEM career in the future. 

Zain Ahmed Samdani, 16, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Robots to Help Stroke Patients

This 16-year-old Saudi has designed an exoskeletal robotic glove to help patients with brain damage from strokes and other cerebral injuries. His robotic hand is designed to help retrain patients' brains by allowing them to practice skills they may have lost when one side of their body was paralyzed or damaged. The lightweight, portable "ExoHeal" is worn on both hands—the glove on the paralyzed hand mimics the movements of the healthy hand, tricking the brain into thinking that hand is working normally. The teen says he was inspired by his hardworking mother to begin creating robots that could help relieve various burdens.