By Anna Grace Usery
Sometimes Keerthin Karthikeyan lies awake at night thinking of ways to improve the environment.
Thinking became his catalyst to acting, which led the Oxford High School student to return home from SUNY in Oswego, New York with a coveted Genius Olympiad silver medal in hand. Out of 1,500 participants who represented 79 countries and 43 U.S. states, his science project—a new and innovative technique for recycling Styrofoam—topped out in the 90th percentile out of a whopping 842 projects.
The Olympiad, held June 21, consisted of five different categories high school students could enter, including science, visual and performance, business, writing and robotics. Each category centered around environmental issues.
Karthikeyan’s concern for the environment interested him in finding various measures to protect it, he said.
“I realize that Styrofoam is a huge threat to our environment, as it is non-degradable, and it takes 500 to 1,000 years to decompose. Sometimes it will never,” he said. “Because of this, I was thinking about different methods to recycle it.”
His knowledge of the negative environmental effects of Styrofoam and ways to eradicate them originated with his first project’s success, what he calls “Styrofoam-Eating Fruits.”
He used the oils from the peels of common citrus fruits—oranges, lemons and limes—to somehow dissolve Styrofoam into a “gooey” substance, which he says can be used as glue.
While he credits his parents and Oxford Middle School Principal Audra Rester with most of his success, he can’t help but draw from the scientific experiences he had as a Boy Scout. In fact, the idea for his prize-winning project “Styro-Carbon: An Effective Approach to Recycle Styrofoam” came from one of man’s greatest inventions – fire.
He and his peers learned to turn wood into charcoal by “charring” it, which, scientifically, is burning an item in the absence of oxygen.
“Aka…carbon,” he said, hinting to the direct link of his environmentally-lifesaving creation.
As a voracious reader of scientific literature, Karthikeyan also learned Styrofoam is 92 percent carbon.
“I was thinking that, theoretically, if you are able to get charcoal from wood, you should also be able to convert Styrofoam into carbon,” he said. “Based on this hypothesis, I was able to create this method to convert Styrofoam into carbon and named this material as ‘STYRO-CARBON.’”
The scientific breakthrough has potential global effects.
U.S. citizens trash more than 25 trillion cups made from Styrofoam every year, according to No More Styrofoam, a global organization that funds startups to aid in a more sustainable future. Therefore, Styrofoam makes for one of the world’s largest polluting materials.
According to Karthikeyan, who’s done his fair share of research 1,369 tons of the cheap material is being dumped in landfills per day in the U.S.—a number he deemed unacceptable.
By using his method to convert Styrofoam into just a few grams of carbon, it has many applicable medical and environmental potentials: teeth whitening, medicine, chemical purification, water filtering and sewage treatment.
“This solution can eradicate all of Styrofoam pollution as we know it,” he said. “And this is only around 10% of the possibilities I know.”
With a statement like that, it’s no secret he has aspirations for a successful career in science. Though he admits his college plans seem to change consistently (as a rising 9th grader), he has his sights on medical school at one of America’s greatest Ivy League institutions.
As a successful University of Mississippi senior research scientist herself, Karthikeyan’s mother, Dr. Prema Balachandran, said she’s impressed by her son’s passion and love for helping others through science.
“I feel overwhelmed by all his success, and I understand this success puts huge responsibility on his shoulders to continue this path successfully in his future endeavors,” she said. “As a parent, me and my husband pray that God may guide him through the right path for his successful future.”