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Intriguing Exhibits Highlight Intel's Science Fair


More than 1,600 high school kids are showcasing their science projects here in Los Angeles this week, at Intel's International Science and Engineering Fair. It's billed as the biggest high school science competition in the world. At stake - $4 million in prizes. One young contender is Taylor Wilson from Reno, Nevada. Judy Dutton has written about him and other extraordinary kids in a new book called "Science Fair Season." At this year's fair, she's already spotted some intriguing exhibits.

Ms. JUDY DUTTON (Author, "Science Fair Season"): There was a device that fits in the exhaust pipe to your car that reduces CO2 emissions by 92 percent. And it has a patent, which is not that unusual, because around one in four students at this level of science fair have patents for their projects.

MONTAGNE: Let me as you, Taylor Wilson. You're sitting here. Do you have a patent already?

Mr. TAYLOR WILSON: Yeah. One patent pending, and then three other patents in the process.

MONTAGNE: OK. Your patent pending?

Mr. WILSON: It is a new neutron detector for Department of Homeland Security. Something like the current material used for neutron detection is the rarest and most expensive substance on planet Earth. It's called helium-3. I've developed a neutron detector that uses water. So we're going from most expensive, rare substance on planet Earth to the cheapest and most abundant. So that's what the patent is for.

MONTAGNE; Well, then I'm going to go back to you, Judy Dutton. Science fairs for those of us who are not, you know, part of them or haven't been for years think of them as elaborate, you know, school district, or even county wide events.

Ms. DUTTON: Sure.

MONTAGNE: Not like big science fairs today. Big business.

Ms. DUTTON: Right. It's completely different. The old baking soda volcanoes and potato clocks are far in the past. And today, you have things like nuclear fusion reactors. That is something that Taylor Wilson built in his garage.

And a lot of the projects that I saw this year offer solutions to recent world problems. For example, one student found that phytoplankton, an organism in the ocean, can help clean up oil spills. And another student developed an anti-tsunami device, which helps break up waves before they reach the shore.

MONTAGNE: Taylor Wilson, you're 15, 16 years old?

Mr. WILSON: Just turned 17 Saturday.

MONTAGNE: You know, what would you say is the motivating force for you?

Mr. WILSON: So, you know, I've been doing applied nuclear physics for, I would say, six years now. and there's some people at the science fair, for example, in the physics category, that enjoy working on, you know, solving the questions and the mysteries of the universe, you know. How did we get here? Where did we come from?

Me, on the other hand, I like taking new things that've been discovered and applying them to real world problems. So most of the research I do is trying to solve a problem, whether it be terrorists bringing nuclear weapons through ports or curing cancer with radioactive material. So it's taking this new physics that's been discovered and applying it.

MONTAGNE: Judy Dutton, what was the driving force for some of these young minds?

Ms. DUTTON: I think that all of the kids at science fairs the common denominator is that they do want to make the world a better place and they want to solve problems. Their lack of experience is actually a benefit sometimes, because they can see things in ways that adult scientists can't.

Mr. WILSON: I don't know. I think kids in general just have less of a constricted view of the world. I mean, scientists in their professional careers, I think, sometimes get in this mentality of it can't be done or it shouldn't be done, whereas kids are not so close minded.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank both of you for coming in.

Mr. WILSON: Definitely. Thank you.

Ms. DUTTON: Thanks so much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Writer Judy Dutton and student finalist Taylor Wilson joined us here at NPR West. The winners Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, will be announced this Friday.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.