Pecan tree experiment a winner at NM science fair

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Pecan trees aren’t just for growing yummy treats. The orchards may help remove carbon dioxide, one of the most important greenhouse gases, from the air.

Albert Zuo and Eli Echt-Wilson, a pair of La Cueva High School juniors, were curious about the optimal way to grow trees to “sequester” carbon, one approach to reducing the impact of fossil fuels on Earth’s climate. With some inspiration from La Cueva biology teacher Jason DeWitte, the pair built a computer simulation of an orchard of growing trees.

Their work made them one of the top prize winners Saturday at the New Mexico State Science and Engineering Fair at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, earning them an all-expense-paid trip next month to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles.

More than 1,600 of the world’s top young science talents are expected at the fair, with students from some 70 countries, according to event organizers. They compete for more than $4 million in prizes, including cash, scholarships and the chance to participate in major research projects.

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The goal for Zuo and Echt-Wilson was to find the optimal spacing between trees to maximize the amount of carbon locked up in the bodies of the growing trees. Get it right, the young researchers found – their optimum spacing was 1.67 meters, tree to tree – and you can maximize the amount of carbon you store.

The project focused on a generic tree rather than a specific species, Zuo said. The duo’s next step is to modify their computer program to look at the specifics of carbon sequestration in pecans, one of the most lucrative crops grown in New Mexico.

Zuo and Echt-Wilson are among nine New Mexicans who were “grand awards” winners at Saturday’s event, all earning a trip to the fair in Los Angeles:

• Sven Jandura, Jovan Zhang and William Sidley-Parker of Los Alamos High School for “Are You Smarter Than a Sentry Gun? An Investigation of Motion Tracking.”

• Coleman Kendrick of Los Alamos High School for “3D Hydrodynamic Simulation of Classical Nova Explosions.”

• Edward Park of Las Cruces High School for “Efficient Energy Harvesting Using Bio-Nanowires.”

• Jeongmin Lee of Las Cruces High School for “Gas Phase Ion Chemistry and Ion Mobility of Pharmaceutical Substances in Counterfeit Formulation.”

• Michael Randall of Mayfield High School in Las Cruces for “Save Our Oceans! Oil Eating Bacteria, Part 4!”

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