NMMI Students Win 4th Place At Regeneron International Science And Engineering Fair

New Mexico Military Institute students Evan Kennedy, Isaac Perez and Lucas Tang faced a familiar problem: weeds.

But not just weeds. The three NMMI students wanted to control weeds and not kill insects or contaminate the soil. Currently, the chemicals we use to kill weeds can hurt soil and insects, a big problem on a global scale.

To come up with a solution, Kennedy, Perez and Tang had to experiment with different materials and explore different possibilities. They had to wrestle with various hypotheses before they discovered what worked.

Ultimately, they determined nature provides a remedy for the problem they wanted to solve. The group’s solution is a sustainable bioplastic made solely of organic materials to prevent the overgrowth of weeds. The bioplastic they created is eco-friendly to both soil and insects.

Their ingenious solution to the problem of weeds is how the students won 4th place in the plant sciences category at the 2023 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Dallas, Texas.

The worldwide competition brought 1,300 students from all over the world to compete.

To make the award-winning bioplastic, “we used vinegar, food-graded glycerin, cornstarch, green chili chaff powder, cayenne pepper powder and purple cabbage juice,” Kennedy explains. The ingredients are cost-effective and environmentally sustainable. The bioplastic is inexpensive to make and can be used anywhere weeds are a problem.

The team is proud to incorporate chili peppers in the bioplastic because New Mexico is the chili capital of the world and a staple crop in the Land of Enchantment. “We used green chili in honor of New Mexico,” Kennedy says.

The students began thinking about how to incorporate chili peppers following the New Mexico Governor’s STEM Challenge, where they were asked to create a useful product from a native New Mexican resource. From there, the students noticed green chili chaff, a common waste product from roasting chili peppers, didn’t yet have a viable use.

The green chili chaff the team made is “very, very dark” in color. They added the green chili chafe, cayenne pepper, and purple cabbage juice to a base bioplastic that would both prevent the growth of weeds and protect insects.

The bioplastic the team developed isn’t like traditional plastic that pollutes the oceans and land. Their bioplastic degrades quickly in addition to acting as a weed barrier.

Now, after winning 4th place, the students have a new problem to solve: they need to patent their idea before an outside company steals their formula.

“The kids have fantastic ideas, but their ideas are not protected,” said Lt. Col. Frank Kimbler, associate professor of geology and earth sciences, on Tuesday. He and another faculty member from NMMI, Maj. Demvia Maslian, associate professor of science, traveled to Dallas with the students and supported their win.

According to Kimbler, when you publish a project or idea in the public domain, you have one year to get a patent. Time is ticking for the three NMMI students to have their idea safeguarded.

“Sometimes students get their ideas patented,” Kimbler said. “But getting a patent is expensive.” The students could potentially get free help from the government, but nothing is certain.

In the meantime, the three students are eager for their idea to stay secure.

“Judges would come up to us and say we should commercialize the product and share the product with farmers,” Kennedy says. “But sometimes you don’t have access to resources.”

At the conference, they exchanged pins with other students from across the globe. The scholars from New Mexico shared a pin that celebrates the iconic plant, the chili pepper, integral to our state and necessary for the students’ bioplastic.

The conference was an opportunity for the three students to showcase their efforts as a community of learners working to make the world more sustainable for all, including bugs.

The RDR article is viewable here.