Saint John teen aims big for 1st invention: filtering CO2 from vehicle exhaust
With tips from NASA, Colby Wallace works on something that has eluded top scientists
A Grade 11 student at Saint John High School is working on an invention that he believes could drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide given off by vehicles that burn gas.
"It's a major issue in climate change at the moment," said Colby Wallace, 17.
Most people don't realize a car produces 4.6 metric tonnes or 9,200 pounds of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide every year, said Wallace.
"I really want to … reduce it as much as possible."
Expects big emissions drop
Wallace has designed a CO2 filter that he thinks could cut emissions by 50 per cent.
"I believe that in the next 10 years we may be full electric but using my product will fill between that gap."
Colby said he was inspired by calls from political leaders to address the climate crisis.
"I used to think it wasn't a big deal. I thought it was just like one of those things that people just complained about."
But Colby became more concerned when heat records were broken last summer.
"It melted one third of the Arctic and it just shocked me. ... If sea levels are rising it's not all going to refreeze."
Colby turned that preoccupation into a school project as part of the Anglophone South School District's Ideas Centre program.
Inspired by drive-thru exhaust
The program helps entrepreneurial students develop products or services.
Colby came up with the concept while waiting in the Tim Hortons drive-thru.
His filter would be in a canister about 60 centimetres long that fits in the exhaust system.
A cost-effective, on-board carbon-capture system for vehicles is a much sought-after dream that has so far eluded top scientists around the world.
But Wallace is not discouraged by what would seem to be the unlikely prospect of success.
Sought advice from NASA
"There is a lot of speculation when it comes to capturing CO2 through a filter," he said. "But I have been very faithful to this project and making it real. … I am ready to take the world by storm."
Wallace said he has received some high-profile support, including advice from NASA.
The Saint John teen said he was aware of the space agency's expertise with CO2 filters for space shuttles and the International Space Station.
He thought, "Wouldn't it just be crazy," to ask NASA for help.
Heard from Space Centre boss
About a month and a half ago, he decided to "just shoot for it."
"I gave them probably the best pitch I ever gave," said Wallace. "And they were really inspired by it."
So much so, said Wallace, that the person who fielded his inquiry went out of their way to take the request to a higher level.
A few days later, Wallace said, he received a call back from none other than the head of the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida, former astronaut Robert Cabana.
Just getting a chance to speak to Cabana, Wallace considers one of the greatest accomplishments of his young life.
He said he picked up some valuable guidance.
"He just kind of directed me towards a better way of doing the filter — more absorption for the CO2 over a longer period of time ... because I was always kind of experimenting ideas of how I would use it and you know what's the best solution for people. And he just gave me the information I needed."
Wallace said his filter should last six months to a year before it needs to be replaced.
He said Cabana was very encouraging.
"He thinks this idea is fantastic and he wants to see this happen."
CBC News has not yet been able to confirm Wallace's account of this conversation with NASA.
Wallace hasn't revealed any further details about his design but said he plans to start building a prototype soon at at the New Brunswick Community College, where he is also being coached by chemist Bruce Martin, the school's head of technology, and automotive expert Roland Roberts.
Besides climate action and celebrity endorsement, Wallace is also being spurred on by a bit of sibling rivalry.
"My brother was a former entrepreneur here — a very successful one."
He's definitely taking the science and innovation role into business-running — definitely not starting off walking.- Graham Wallace, Colby's brother
Graham Wallace, now 19, and a business student at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, used his time in the Ideas Centre to come up with hockey socks that don't require repeated purchases and application of copious amounts of tape to hold them up.
The socks have built-in straps instead.
The older brother said he secured a provisional patent and about $30,000 from a Toronto law firm for his product.
He has a registered business, but said it is in "hibernation" while he attends university.
Graham said he is pleased to see his younger brother developing his ambitious CO2 filter idea.
"I think it's fantastic. He's definitely taking the science and innovation role into business-running — definitely not starting off walking," Graham said. "It's obviously a huge project. I hope he takes it step by step, you know, one thing at the time.
"It's opened many doors for me and I hope it will for him too."
Graham said he thinks he and Colby share a desire to build and create.
Neither of their parents are inventors. They have a few other siblings, but none have tried their hand at inventing — yet.
Past his trouble-0making stage
Colby Wallace said his brother's experience was a big inspiration. Colby described himself as "a trouble-maker" when he was in Grade 10 last year but said the entrepreneurship and innovation program has helped him turn his academic career around.
"I took full advantage of it and in the last three months it's just been a roller-coaster. I've been everywhere. It's really interesting."
His dream is to get a manufacturer to buy his design and factory-produce it in cars, then planes and refineries.
"I'm hoping to get this all over the place. "
with files from Information Morning Saint John