Calgary's Hayley Todesco wins Canadian Google Science Fair prize
A young woman from Calgary has invented a faster way to clean up toxic waste generated by oilsands extraction, using filters made from sand and bacteria.
The new technology has made Hayley Todesco, 18, the Google Science Fair's regional winner for Canada, Google announced in a news release this week.
Todesco is one of 90 regional finalists around the world who remain in the online competition held annually by the technology giant since 2011.
Todesco says that based on her research, her technique could break down toxic compounds found in oilsands tailings 14 times more quickly than letting them sit, stored in tailings ponds as they mainly are now.
"The significance of these results is the discovery of a sustainable way to decrease the detoxification of tailings ponds from centuries to decades," she wrote in a summary posted on the Google Science Fair website.
Watch Hayley Todesco's video about her project
Tailings ponds occupied about 176 square kilometres in 2010 or roughly the area of B.C.'s Saltspring Island, according to the environmental think-tank the Pembina Institute. That area is expected to grow to 250 square kilometres by 2020.
Inspiration from Grade 5
Todesco said that having been born and raised in Alberta, she was very aware of this pollution problem. She was trying to think of a science fair project that would help solve it, when she thought back to a demonstration in her Grade 5 class. The class had been raising money to send filters to Africa for drinking water, and a guest speaker helped the students make some from pop bottles and sand.
"We put muddy water in the top and it came out totally clean," Todesco said. When she remembered that, she added, "That's kind of when I had my eureka moment."
Todesco was also interested in biology and bioreactors that use bacteria to break down waste, so she decided to make a bioreactor that incorporated sand, similar to devices invented to clean European sewage in the 19th century. Todesco wanted it to break down naphthenic acid, a major toxic component of oilsands tailings.