Grade 12 student Vasu Kaker was selected as a Regeneron STS top 300 scholar in the 80th Regeneron Science Talent Search—the US' oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for High School seniors. A total of 1,760 students entered the competition this year, which is owned and produced by Society for Science. Vasu won $2,000, and UWCSEA East will also receive $2,000 to use toward STEM-related activities.
Vasu has been at UWCSEA East for ten years and as a science aficionado, he has led the UWCSEA Science Society and STEM Club, and spent the last three summers conducting research at university laboratories. He is also an avid circus artist and juggler. Read more to hear from Vasu about his passion for STEM, and the inspiration behind his winning project.
In Grade 8, I participated in a school-wide social entrepreneurship competition sponsored by UWC and The Global Education Leadership Foundation (tGELF). Almost a billion people in the world don’t have electricity. They frequently utilise unsafe, dangerous kerosene lamps to provide light for nighttime education and other activities. To address these challenges, my team designed and pitched shoe insoles containing a ‘piezoelectric material.’ This piezoelectric material could generate electricity through harnessing the kinetic energy of walking, which could later be stored in a battery to power an LED bulb.
Taking part in this social entrepreneurship competition led me on a research journey that culminated in my project submission to the Regeneron Science Talent Search. While designing the piezoelectric-containing shoe insoles, I became fascinated by the potential of energy storage technologies to transform the world, given their applications in phones, laptops, renewable energy systems, electric vehicles, and even future electric planes. Although battery-powered electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular, a key factor limiting faster growth of electric vehicles and the development of electric planes is the insufficient energy density (energy stored per kilogram) of ‘lithium-ion batteries’. Another limitation is that lithium-ion batteries consist of 10-30% cobalt: a costly metal derived largely from mines in Congo where child labour is rampant.
A possible solution to power electric vehicles and future electric planes is ‘lithium-oxygen batteries’ that can theoretically store 20 times the energy of lithium-ion batteries. Still in their infancy, materials used in lithium-oxygen batteries rarely achieve this theoretical performance and are not sufficiently durable to be commercially viable.
In my research, conducted at a university laboratory, I designed and synthesized a novel lithium-oxygen battery material—a composite of ceria, cobalt, and carbon—to address aforementioned challenges. During the testing phase, the catalyst delivered a remarkably high energy density, lifespan, stability, and strong rechargeability. Furthermore, the newly-developed lithium-oxygen battery material possesses a significantly lower cobalt content of ~2%.
I heard about the Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS), America’s oldest and most prestigious science and mathematics competition for high school students, on CNN. My submission included a manuscript of my research work into lithium-oxygen batteries, details on past scientific endeavors, and responses to essay prompts including my perspectives on major challenges facing the energy sector and the real world impact of my research. The analytical, communication, and research skills I gained through conducting schoolwork like the Extended Essay, Internal Assessments, and Design & Technology Major Project proved instrumental throughout the research process and a successful submission to the competition. I am thrilled to be named an STS Scholar and look forward to interacting with talented peers at upcoming STS-sponsored events. In the future, I plan to continue conducting research into batteries and renewable energy, with the eventual goal of entrepreneurship to translate laboratory research into real-world impact.
I would like to thank my teachers at UWCSEA for helping spark my passion for the sciences and continuing to mentor and guide me on my scientific journey. Through their intriguing classes, lab practicals, projects, and the service-oriented curriculum of UWCSEA, science has become a lens for me to view the world and realise a more sustainable future.
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