Canada’s Hayley Todesco has developed a method to speed up the detoxification of oil sands tailings ponds using 5th grade science. The 18-year-old Google Science Fair 2014 finalist won a $25,000 scholarship for her idea, which involves using sand filters to accelerate the biodegradation of toxic naphthenic acids.

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Hayley Todesco proposes to use ‘slow’ sand filters to quickly remove the toxicity from oil sands tailings, a mixture that is produced during bitumen extraction. This mixture contains naphthenic acids, which are highly toxic, resist biodegradation, and pose a serious long-term environmental hazard. In her proposal, Hayley said that by 2025, the total volume of accumulated tailings is expected to equal one billion cubic meters. Hayley compared the idea of using slow sand filters to planktonic batch culture (PBC) bioreactors.

Related: 16-Year-Old Irish Girls Win the Google Science Fair 2014 With Crop Yield Breakthrough

“Based on my results, 400 Olympic swimming pool-sized SSF bioreactors could potentially bioremediate the NAs in all oil sands tailings free water in less than 20 years (14 times faster than PBC bioreactors). The significance of these results is the discovery of a sustainable way to decrease the detoxification of tailings ponds from centuries to decades,” Hayley noted in her proposal.

Google agreed with her assessment and awarded her the top prize in the 17-18 year old category. In was Hayley’s second big win of the month. She also received the 2014 Stockholm Junior Water Prize for her oil sands research, which came with a $15,000 award and $5,000 for her school.

+ Google Science Fair


Tar sands image via Shutterstock