Teen develops bacteria to break down oil waste

18-year-old Mighty Girl Hayley Todesco wanted to design a better way to clean up the toxic waste left by oil sands extraction, a major issue in her home province of Alberta, Canada. After two years of effort, Hayley developed a filtration system which uses sand and bacteria to break down the toxins 14 times faster than the conventional method of handling the waste. She spent the past two years developing the filtration system which won her the 17- to 18-year old category at the 2014 Google Science Fair, as well as the prestigious science fair’s “Local Award” for the Americas which recognizes projects addressing a locally relevant issue.

Growing up in Alberta, Hayley was very aware of the pollution caused by oil sands or tar sands extraction; by 2010, the tailings ponds currently used to store the toxic byproducts of extraction occupied nearly 68 square miles (176 square kilometers) and that number is only expected to grow unless a better method of processing tailings is developed. She wanted to come up with a science fair project that would help solve this problem and remembered a moment from fifth grade when a guest speaker showed her class how to make water filters out of plastic bottles. “We put muddy water in the top and it came out totally clean,” Hayley remembered. “That’s kind of when I had my eureka moment.”

Hayley decided to build a bioreactor, which uses bacteria to break down waste, that also incorporated a sand filter. She wanted to determine if her system could break down naphthenic acid, a major toxic component of oil sands waste, but she didn’t have access to oil sands tailings or bacteria. So the determined young scientist identified University of Calgary labs that specialized in tailings pond research and she “found the professor with the nicest smile and sent them an email.” As a result, she was able to work in the lab of biology professor Lisa Gieg and have access to the materials necessary to continue her research.

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