9th Grader Develops $12 Machine That Produces Renewable Energy From Ocean Currents

Hannah Herbst designed an ocean probe capable of powering desalination pumps in third-world countries.

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Credit: Business Insider


15-year-old Hannah Herbst wants to bring renewable energy to developing countries, and is very close to doing just that.

The teen, from Boca Raton, Florida, was inspired by her 9-year-old pen pal in Ethiopia who has limited access to electricity. She told Business Insider: “I can’t even imagine a day without electricity.” 

For this year’s Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, Hannah worked tirelessly to design a probe which can generate power and fresh water by harvesting it from ocean currents.

The recently-designed energy probe is made of recycled materials and costs just $12. It consists of a 3D-printed propeller, connected by a pulley inside a plastic PVC pipe to a hydroelectric generator, which converts the mechanical movement of ocean currents to usable electricity.

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Credit: FastcoExist

When Herbst tested the device in the Boca Raton Intracoastal Waterway, where the current comes in from the Atlantic Ocean, she was able to power a set of LED lights.

If the design were scaled up, she calculated, enough electricity could be produced to charge three car batteries at once in less than an hour. That’s enough energy to power saltwater desalination pumps to provide a source of fresh water for developing countries!

It could also power blood centrifuges for medical use, or coastal beacons for ship navigation.

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Credit: The Plaid Zebra

This design won Hannah the title of “America’s Top Young Scientists” and $25,000 at the competition at the 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Her mentor for the project was 3M corporate scientist Jeffrey Emslander, whose research has helped the company reduce its emissions and produce its products using less energy. They are pictured together below.

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Credit: Business Insider

The inspiring young teen intends to donate some of the new winnings to her Ethiopian pen pal, and toward a new building at her school. The rest will go into her college fund, she said.

Hannah also plans to keep working with her 3M mentor to improve her ocean energy device, and eventually deploy it in developing countries. When it is ready to share, she plans on making her finalized design open-source so that it is available to underdeveloped communities for free.

Herbst told FastCompany: “Everybody in the world can have access to the materials list and the data I got—everything you need to make this device. I really want to help my pen pal. I can’t imagine a day without energy in my life.”

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