6/9/2011 3:31:00 AM ENVIRONMENT Biogas project wins prizes
KATIE AND HER biogas digester. Three out of the four scholarships awarded at the fair went to AHN students: Juniors Maura Desharnais and Aislyn DiRisio won $20,000 scholarships to Albany College of Pharmacy.
After weeks of hearing power tools buzz through steel in an Albany backyard last summer, Katie Picchione's neighbors grew slightly irritated. When she moved her science project to the garage, its rotten-egg stench irritated her family, too.
Even Katie, a junior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany, sometimes questioned her homemade biogas digester: Was she using the right materials? Would her hundreds of hours of manual labor, design work and supply shopping pay off? Was it worth it to heat the digester in the garage, to ventilate the area so methane gas didn't seep into the house and to "feed" her new "pet" every day?
"There were times when I was ready to turn it off," she told The Evangelist.
Then, at 11 p.m. on a school night, the digester's flame finally lit: Katie had successfully created usable energy out of food scraps and lawn clippings.
"The fact that it worked was really fulfilling," Katie said excitedly.
This spring, her experiment won first place at the Greater Capital Region Science and Engineering Fair. She also received a $40,000 scholarship to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, a cash prize, a magazine subscription and a trip to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles.
The trip was "phenomenal," she said. "You could walk around and hear people speaking five different languages. Everybody [there] has this universal fascination with science. It made me actually see my science research in a different way."
Katie thinks she won the local competition "because I'm so excited about it - and the fact that I can bring it down to a level that my [nine-year-old] brother could understand."
Katie's passion for biogas bloomed after she attended a talk featuring Gregory Bell, consultant to BioEnergies of the Americas in Albany. Mr. Bell later became her mentor and partner.
"On a community scale, I think biogas is a very real possibility," Katie said, explaining that cafeteria leftovers, landfill gas and grass clippings can fuel cars. "We have the potential to use the energy all around us - and instead of digging for fossil fuels, we can just use the things we have."
Mr. Bell has never actually built a digester. "It was really her idea," he said. "I never really had in mind to do a backyard version of this anywhere."
According to Mr. Bell, there are 4,500 digesters in Germany, 3,500 in other European countries and only 150 in America. Seventeen of those are located in New York State.
Katie's research showed that families in developing countries use digesters to heat homes and cook food, but the gas isn't fully compressed and stored, and the methane sometimes causes explosions.
"I wasn't able to find a safe way in my research, so I set out to find a safe way," she explained.
Katie applied for a permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation and consulted with engineers about safety before starting construction.
The project exceeded simply making a digester. Katie created filters to clean corrosive impurities found in raw biogas and built compression and storage systems to make the contraption safe and simple enough to use on small scales.
She's not done yet: She and Mr. Bell will design and build a new digester that will be energy-independent and use materials less vulnerable to corrosion.
The Picchiones attend All Saints parish in Albany, where Katie was recently confirmed and commissioned as a eucharistic minister. She says she expresses her faith through her environmental stewardship.
This summer, Katie will write college essays. She's considering RPI, but seems to favor Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts.
She said she wants to be an inventor, "but since colleges don't offer that as a major, engineering will do pretty well. I know that wherever I'm supposed to be, whatever God has in store for me, I'm going to end up there."