Bravo measuring windspeed at the beach. Photo: Tammy Bravo

NEW ORLEANS—There were more than 20,000 scientists in New Orleans for the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) annual meeting earlier this week, thousands of whom gave talks. Despite stiff competition, I feel confident saying Alexia Bravo gave one of the best.

At 11 years old, she was the youngest person at the annual meeting, but she presented her poster about small-scale renewable energy like a seasoned pro. Then again, that makes sense as this is her second AGU, a conference that brings together Earth scientists from around the world to learn from each other and foster collaborations. If her passion for research and solving the world’s biggest problem is any indication, we should probably just turn over running the planet to the next generation right now.

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Bravo’s poster this year was a follow up on her work last year, which explored harnessing wave energy. This year, her prototype has expanded to look at wind and solar as well. It’s what a rational all-of-the-above energy strategy should look like (seriously, if any Trump administration officials are reading, go check it out).

Alexia Bravo presenting her poster on small-scale renewable energy at AGU. Image: Brian Kahn

Last year, she created a prototype made of copper wire, PVC tubing, and ping pong balls to capture the vertical wave energy. It involved plunging into the frigid waters of the Pacific a few hours from her home in Vancouver, Wash. While her experiment generated some power, she knew she would need to generate more and incorporate technologies that could gather energy in locations not on the coast.

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So over the past year, she tested a water wheel design to capture some of that horizontal wave energy. But as the project progressed, she figured why stop there. Why not swing for the fences and gather as much renewable energy as possible? After all, the world’s carbon pollution problem requires radical solutions if we’re to keep climate change from making the world uninhabitable.

She began by prototyping a few wind turbine designs out of paper mache and tested them in front of a fan. She also measured wind speed at the beach. Turns out the lower to the water, the weaker the winds.

“I think I’ll have to reconsider my original design based on the data,” she told Earther. “I might have to take the wind out because what’s the point of spending on that stuff when you could have something else.”

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Bravo testing her wave energy generation prototype. Photo: Tammy Bravo

Next up was solar panels. Bravo analyzed the best angle to set a small array to maximize power generation and made sure the solar panels were waterproof.
Her ultimate goal is to combine all these technologies into one deployable, self-contained kit.

The result is an evolving renewable energy juggernaut, slowly picking up steam to gather the maximum amount of energy from freely available resources without emitting a speck of carbon dioxide. The inspiration for thinking outside the box came from a wind energy-generating tree a French firm developed that can generate enough juice in a year to power an electric car to drive 10,000 miles.

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“Only 10 percent [of U.S. electricity] comes from renewable energy. I thought that wasn’t enough,” she said. “I thought that on a small-scale, I could take one house of the grid at a time.”

But what inspired Bravo to undertake this project in the first place was a desire to reduce the impacts of climate change. She’s particularly concerned about ocean acidification on marine life (which she has also studied because she is a true Renaissance woman).

Bravo was presenting as part of a group of Bright Students Training as Research Scientists (the wonderfully clunky acronym-ed Bright STaRS), which featured 75 students presenting 60 posters this year on topics ranging from a self-navigating wheel chair to microplastics in the Gulf of Mexico to measuring the width of the East African Rift system.

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The session, which has happened every year since 2002, is open for K-12 students but the majority of the students were high schoolers. Joan Burhman, the director of AGU’s strategic communications department, told Earther that Bravo was the first 10 year old in recent memory to present at the conference last year, but that engaging her and other students is an important part of the meeting.

“AGU is committed to developing a strong and diverse pool of talented researchers who can help us build a sustainable foundation for the future, and our Fall Meeting attendees recognize the importance of supporting the next generation of Earth scientists,” she said.

Not to get all Whitney Houston, but truly the children are our future. In a world full of cynicism and where every day brings fresh horrors, Alexia Bravo and the rest of students asking vital questions are a reminder that if we manage to not mess things up too much more, the world could be in much better hands.

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This is disruption with a purpose, creative thinking to solve actual problems. This type of stuff gives me life. Let them lead the way.