A teenage girl sits on her couch, holding a gently purring cat. Across the room, the sound of pennies dropping to the floor causes the cat to jump from the girl’s arms to investigate. The girl turns her attention to me. She is Laura Vorbach, a 16 year-old New Jersey native, cat owner, and cSw Social Media Manager. In between tending to cSw’s social media accounts and taking care of her cat, she created time in her busy schedule for an interview about her latest research project. Her research, which she conducted with Biotechnology High School (NJ) classmate Christina Dong, had humble beginnings in her school’s Environmental Biotechnology class. One of their assignments was to propose a project idea for the international Clean Tech competition. The theme this year was “Creating a Greener Future” by designing a sustainable and environmentally friendly building material. Vorbach and Dong found out their project advanced to the semifinals during late spring, chosen from among hundreds of groups that submitted proposals.
Vorbach explains the problem they are remedying with wood resin, a common building material. Wood resin is a glue used to hold wood together in furniture and other products, and it contains urea formaldehyde. Urea formaldehyde is detrimental to the environment as well as people’s health, but it is very effective in creating a strong bond when used in adhesives such as resins. It replaced soy flour, which created weaker and more expensive resins than those made with urea formaldehyde. However, soy flour is a safer material for household use. Vorbach and Dong decided to use modified soy flour instead of urea formaldehyde when creating their sustainable wood resin.
The duo’s goal was to create a strong, viscous, and water-resistant resin. They made their resin using modified soy flour, which contains proteins from muscles to give the soy flour strength. They also used nanoclay, bamboo fibrils, and distilled water. These materials are cheap, and already commonly used in the industry. Nanoclay is a very fine clay powder, which forms layers and pores through which water can filter through, giving the clay a water resistance. The bamboo fibrils, or very small fibers, give the resin tensile strength, an important quality when creating wood resins. Vorbach explains that the fibrils give the resin strength because they come from the bamboo plant. “Think how difficult it is to cut the bamboo plant horizontally. The fibers are so strong, and they give strength to our resin.” Before painstakingly extracting the fibrils from the bamboo plant, this innovative team processed the plant with sodium hydroxide to soften the tough fibers. The duo describes this process as taking many hours.
As few materials as they used, it was not easy to figure out the correct ratio of materials. The team used a ratio from a previous paper, but modified it through various trials. Vorbach describes their research and experimentation as consisting of many repeated trials to get the resin they wanted– strong, viscous, and water resistant. They tested each resin for tensile strength by adding pressure until the wood’s breaking point and found their resin to be too strong to accurately test with their available equipment. Their experimentation carried well into the summer, and they used their school’s labs during summer hours to perfect their resin and revise their presentation for the competition. They competed against 34 teams from local schools as well as students from all around the world, including Florida, Singapore, and the Philippines.
Vorbach and Dong placed among the top ten teams and received a thousand dollars in prize money. Curious Science Writers and Vorbach herself hope to see more young female scientists pursuing their research ideas for a healthier, more sustainable future.
Feature Photo: Photo by Lennart Heim on Unsplash
This article was written by Carey Lau. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cSw Editorial Staff