This is one in a series of blog posts about sustainability in conjunction with the exhibitions “Thrift Style” and Reclaimed Creations: Sayaka Ganz.” Virginia Iris Kingery is a junior at Manhattan High School and is volunteering at the Beach Museum of Art. She is very interested in the idea of sustainability and will be providing blogs on new research, ideas for reducing and reusing in your own home and community, and sharing ideas from area school groups visiting the museum.
When it comes to reusing materials to better the environment, we see many beneficial innovations come from adults. However, there is also plenty of lesser known creativity exemplified among children and teenagers. The ideas from people of different generations on how to reuse the waste that plagues our environment gives us hope for a greener future. One such person is young inventor Ashton Cofer.
Ashton Cofer, 14, became alerted to the issue of styrofoam waste when some of his teammates for an international LEGO robotics competition for youth returned from a trip to Central America and told him about the beaches they had seen that were littered with styrofoam. Stryofoam is a brand name for a material known as extruded polystyrene foam. Polystyrene is a widely used plastic that is very slow to biodegrade due to its chemical makeup. In addition, polystyrene has very little market demand from recycling businesses.
Cofer, a young person already interested in science, decided to make styrofoam the focus of his next experiment. Concerned about the pollution it caused, he wanted to find a way to reuse styrofoam and make it into something useful. Since styrofoam contains carbon, Cofer and his teammates hypothesized that it could somehow be turned into activated carbon, a material with a number of uses including drinking water filtration and air purification. Activated carbon is processed to have small pores low in volume that are useful in allowing contaminates to adhere to it.
Cofer’s team tried applying different chemicals and heating temperatures to the styrofoam in hopes of creating activated carbon. At first, many of their trials failed, resulting in vaporized materials and hard to clean messes. Despite this, they kept trying, and finally created a material that proved to be activated carbon when tested. Of his experimental process, Cofer said,”…although we started with catching my dad’s grill on fire and failing so many times that we almost quit, it was well worth it when we look back at it now. We took a problem that many people said was impossible and we made it possible, and we persevered when it looked like nothing that we did would work. We learned that you can’t have success without a little, or a lot, of failure. So in the future, don’t be afraid if your grill goes up in flames, because you never know when your idea might just catch fire.”