Top prize for Surrey students' bio-fuel project at national science fair

Two Surrey students looked to the sky for inspiration — coming up with a process for fuel production in space — at the Canada Wide Science Fair.

Young scientists say they have an idea that could help humans get home from Mars

Two Surrey high school students are up $8,000 and two gold medals after taking a top prize at the 2017 Canada Wide Science Fair.

The pair developed and tested a method that uses algae and bacteria to produce fuel, using photosynthesis.

The technology is something they imagine could one day make a return trip from Mars, a reality.

"It can make gasoline for our cars or even kerosene, which is what powers our rockets," said 16-year-old Charles Wong of Semiahmoo Secondary School.

The process all starts when sugars are created and stored by algae through the process of photosynthesis.

They algae is funneled into an airtight tank where it's eaten by a bacteria that excretes acetone, butanol and ethanol which can be combined under heat and pressure to form hydrocarbons, or fuel, the duo explained to Sheryl Mckay, host of CBC's North by Northwest.

Process works better on Mars

Part of the inspiration for the project came from Elon Musk's speech in September 2016 where he announced his intentions to put humans on Mars by the early 2020s.

But a major barrier in getting to Mars is having enough fuel — Kerosene in this case — to get back to Earth.

"Kerosene comes from, basically, dinosaur bones and as far as we know there aren't any dinosaurs on Mars and never were," said 16-year-old Spencer Zezulka, a student at Elgin Park Secondary School.

The students' system doesn't rely on heavy manufacturing equipment and is actually better suited to the atmosphere on Mars than the atmosphere here on Earth.

Higher levels of carbon dioxide on Mars would act as a constant food source for the algae and the planet's lack of oxygen is better for the specific type of bacteria needed in the process.

Next stop: science camp

The chemistry between the two is palpable. Laughing and finishing each other's sentences, they explained why they enjoy working together.

"If you're failing, there's someone else there with you," said Wang.

Both say they're "definitely" going to study sciences in future but don't feel a need quite yet to make the decision as to which stream they'll choose.

"Ideally what we want is to be able to show our project to Elon Musk," said Zezulka.

Part of the prize money will go to paying for the team's materials and travel costs for the science fair, which took place at the University of Regina, and what's left will pay for a summer science camp, they said.

Three other students from British Columbia also took home top prizes at the event: Yimeng Li, a Grade 9 student at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Vancouver, Nattan Telmer, a grade 9 student at Arbutus Global Middle School in Victoria, and Grant Mansiere of Summerland also won a Gold Medal — his second in four years.

With files from CBC Radio One's North by Northwest