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Whiz Kids Discover Way to Dissolve Styrofoam for National Contest

By Emily Frost | March 5, 2014 1:00pm
 Three students are entering a national competition with a $50,000 scholarship at stake with their idea for dissolving Styrofoam. 
Students Create New Method for Dissolving Styrofoam
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Three local teenagers with a passion for science have devised a way to dissolve Styrofoam as part of a national science competition, creating a useful and profitable byproduct out of the much-maligned material.

Twins James and Hugh Savoldelli, 16, and their friend and classmate Drew Tomback, also 16, submitted their plan to the Siemen's We Can Change the World Challenge Tuesday night. Along with thousands of other teams, they were tasked with developing an environmental solution for a chance to win a $50,000 college scholarship.

The trio's plan involves a process that quickly dissolves discarded Styrofoam and creates benzene, which is used to make gasoline more efficient, they explained.

The classmates are no stranger to competitions, having won a $5,000 prize last summer for creating a communication gadget as part of another nationwide contest. The Savoldelli brothers also took top honors in a seventh-grade competition for dreaming up a way to channel the subway's wind power.

"This competition had the largest amount of work, was the toughest, required the most research and was by far the most fun," James Savoldelli said.

Excited by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's push to ban Styrofoam in the city, the teens set about researching what could be done with the gargantuan piles that already exist in landfills and won't disintegrate for centuries. 

"Polystyrene [Styrofoam] is really bad... but getting rid of it isn't going to be a couple-month process," noted Tomback, saying that realization pushed the team to come up with a solution for the current situation.

For months, their weekends and afternoons were spent researching existing solutions and possible new dissolution methods, all while working around sports schedules and difficult homework assignments at their school, Columbia Grammar and Prep, they said.

Their sophomore year chemistry class inspired them to create a solution that stemmed from chemical interaction, James said.

They connected with Dr. Camille Hamula, director of microbiology at Mt. Sinai, who helped them buy and work with bacteria that would dissolve Styrofoam through a process called pyrolysis, or decomposing material at high temperatures without oxygen. 

But a pollutant called styrene is released as part of the process, and the team wanted a way to not only get rid of it but also put it to good use, they said. 

By combining it with fungi, they were able to create benzene, they said. 

"There's been no complete solution from start to end without releasing pollutants," Drew said.

The benzene byproduct is "economically viable" because it can be sold, said Drew, adding that the team thought the entire process could break even with the help of government subsidies. 

The classmates submitted their application Tuesday night.

After a brief breather, the group plans to attend recycling conferences with industry leaders so their idea can gain some traction.