BEMIDJI -- Last week, Madeline Larson once again walked away with the most prestigious award from the Bemidji Middle School Science Fair.
In doing so, the Bemidji eighth-grader made local history by becoming the first student in the Science Fair’s existence of more than three decades to win the Bob Schultz Award in back-to-back years, impressing both the judges as well as those who work in the industry.
Larson’s project was titled “Effects of Pressurizing a Hydrogen Fuel Cell.” Compiled with a hodgepodge of tubes and wires as well as a few gauges, the project essentially set out to determine if pressurizing hydrogen and oxygen cells in something called a Proton Exchange Membrane could result in the creation of more power.
While the actual science behind the project might be a little tough to conceptualize at first glance, Larson is very upfront about the project's overall applicability in the real world.
“This research is important because developing better ways to utilize, store and transfer energy will provide benefits to society,” Larson wrote in a packet accompanying her project.
That packet was a 16-page document, stuffed with photographs and graphs, as well as a list of her procedures, results and conclusion.
The project was an expansion of the project she submitted to the Fair last year, which garnered her first Bob Schultz Award. She said last year’s project was more focused on the production of hydrogen. This year, Larson had a different, yet related, goal in mind.
“Last year we were testing to see if there was a way to produce hydrogen more efficiently with different electrolytes,” Larson said. “This year, we focused more on the application of the hydrogen.”
Both years, she had to beat out a lot of competitors to claim the top spot. This year, there were more than 600 other students who were eligible for the top prize in the Science Fair. Debra Sandvig, coordinator for the Science Fair, said she knew from the outset that Larson’s project was clearly one of the top contenders.
“There were adults looking at this thing at the Science Fair going, ‘holy cow!’” Sandvig said.
Larson also has excelled outside her own school. After nabbing the Bob Schultz Award last year, Larson went on to take first place at regionals. From there, she went on to score in the top 10 percent at state.
Larson estimated that she spent roughly 150 hours on her project between the conceptual design and the actual work throughout the two years. Luckily, she had a resourceful assistant who was able to provide some guidance.
Larson’s father, Daniel, was a professor of engineering for more than 20 years. Throughout the years, the two have tinkered their way through numerous projects.
The judges at the Science Fair weren’t the only ones who’ve noticed Larson’s work. Last year, Jacquelyn Birdsall, senior engineer of Toyota Motor North America Inc., sent a letter to Larson after hearing about the then seventh-grader’s project. Birdsall said she heard about Larson from a colleague who was in Minnesota at the time of the Science Fair.
“I have been working on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for over 16 years in hopes that we will someday move towards a sustainable future of transportation -- one powered by hydrogen and electrons instead of oil," Birdsall wrote in her letter. "It gives me comfort that the next generation will continue to work towards this goal and improve the technology we are working on now.”
Along with the letter, the Toyota engineer sent Larson a model Toyota Mirai, which was signed by members of the Toyota Motor North America Fuel Cell Development Team.
“We believe it is innovative and determined young minds like yours that will ultimately help us to change the world,” Birdsall said in her letter.