Ashton Cofer is part of a team of high school students who won the FIRST LEGO League Global Innovation Award and the Scientific American Innovator Award from Google Science Fair, and his recycling talk highlights the innovation that vaulted the team to such accolades. And though the idea has lofty potential, it started from humble beginnings.
As Cofer tells it, the idea for his and his teammates recycling project came after the teammates went on a trip to Central America and saw beaches covered with waste, and in particular Styrofoam. Indeed, every year the US alone produces up to 2 billion pounds of Styrofoam. The team hypothesized that they could develop a cheap and feasible process for turning Styrofoam into activated carbon, a safe material commonly used in water filters. After countless tests and countless failures, they eventually landed on the perfect combination of heat, pressure, time, and chemicals, isolating the carbon in Styrofoam and transforming it into activated carbon. This process aids two global problems at once: it provides an inexpensive means of water purification, and it reduces Styrofoam waste.