Elkhart Memorial students earn Notre Dame Energy Award

Two students from Elkhart Memorial recently brought home the Center for Sustainable Energy at Notre Dame (Notre Dame Energy) Top Senior Award at the Northern Indiana Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

Romi Patel and Diego Reynoso’s project Artificial Photosynthesis sought to give a better understanding of the process of photosynthesis.

“Photosynthesis is arguably the most complex process on the Earth,” says Romi. “All life depends on it. We wanted to study something with a great impact on the world.”

“If you take the chemical formula for photosynthesis – CO2 + H2O + sunlight = glucose + O2 – and try to put it in a box, it doesn’t work,” says Diego. “We found that we needed a catalyst to create the reaction.”

“With that realization, we decided to see if we could create the very first step of photosynthesis – the electron transfer process – find the electronic acceptor, find what takes the energy from the sun.” says Romi.

“We wanted to study this area because we wanted to find something that could have a greater impact on Earth,” says Diego. “If we could better understand the process of photosynthesis with the goal of creating artificial photosynthesis, it could have a major impact on the world. We could better manage our world’s waste, we could create energy, we could use carbon dioxide from plants to create oxygen.”

Says Anne Berges Pillai, Notre Dame Energy Associate Program Director, “The amount of effort put into the project is to be applauded. We were impressed with both their knowledge of the subject matter and their ability to clearly communicate the results. We at ND Energy strive to solve complex questions of producing cleaner, sustainable energy and rely on innovative thinkers like Romi and Diego.”

The students began planning their project in November, and then started the hands-on experimenting in January. “We had to submit background research and a plan. We had to create documentation, safety precautions, detailed reports. Every detail of our project matters – from using tap water to distilled water,” says Romi. “When others see our research, they need to know every exact thing we did.”

Both Romi and Diego hope their work is something that future students will be able to use, “Next year’s class could use our research, and build on it,” says Diego. “They could look at different reactors, find different photochemical elements.” Echoes Romi, “in the scientific field, researchers continue to build on one another’s work to grow scientific knowledge.”

The students give credit to the Science Research class at Elkhart Memorial, and the time it provides for them to experiment. “The class is fun – it gives us a chance to research things that interest us, to think critically about them,” says Diego. “It allows us an opportunity to do something meaningful that could make an impact.”

“I am glad that Romi and Diego have had the opportunity to explore and expand their creativity,” says John Taylor, science teacher at Elkhart Memorial. “It is a pleasure to work with students motivated by the curiosities around us, and assure them that they do not have to wait to do science. They are both great students to work with in the lab.”

As for their futures, and whether science plays a part – it’s definitely a yes for Romi who plans on attending Purdue or Butler to study Biochemistry, but Diego hopes to study Business or Political Science with the goal of working in politics.

We’re certain wherever their paths lead them, their time at Elkhart Memorial, and their experience as Notre Dame Energy Award winners, will prepare them for success and show them the rewards of their hard work and dedication.

Congratulations to Romi and Diego!