First Energy Looks To High Schoolers For Waste & Efficiency Ideas

Apr 12, 2016

The Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station, where students from Blackhawk High School learned about disposal of radioactive waste and energy efficiency.
Credit Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

Managers at the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station got some advice this year from a panel of unlikely consultants – high school students.

Blackhawk High School students studied federal regulations for problems like workers' exposure to dangerous gases and the disposal of radioactive waste. Nuclear engineers and scientists from First Energy Corporation challenged the teens to produce energy safely and more efficiently.

“We really have three priorities: protect the public, protect the workers, protect the plant. And then we make power on the side,” said Beaver Valley plant manager Charles McFeaters.

Students visited the plant and pitched ideas for making the plant safer and environmentally friendly. Student Aubrey O’Leary was tasked with calculating radioactivity limits and how to safely dispose of a toxic element, such as chromium 48. 

“So, we first had to figure out the federal limit (of radioactivity) and then find ways to reduce the concentration or toxicity of the chromium 48, so it could be disposed of in the river,”  O’Leary said.

Some students were also challenged to produce energy more efficiently. To demonstrate their ideas, Greg Bacorn and his team decided to power their plastic turbines with latex balloons.

Students inflate latex balloons to demonstrate steam.
Credit Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

“Instead of having something to generate steam, we decided it would be a lot easier to use balloons, basically the same thing – same type of propulsion,” says Bacorn.

It’s a new spin on technology that’s been used in the nuclear field for decades, but engineers here believe students will be able to improve those practices in time.

“Any chance to actually get to work with a younger population and get them to pursue an engineering degree or something in science or math is very important," said nuclear engineer Carl Capen. "It basically sets them up for success in their career."

The partnership was created by the Global Passport Project, an educational foundation that teams local businesses with schools districts like Blackhawk.

In this week's tech headlines: 

  • Forget real-time targeted ads. You soon could text robots that help you with shopping or organizing chores. Later this year, users of Facebook’s messenger app and Microsoft’s Skype can expect to find new automated assistants called “chatbots” that will pop up and conduct human-like conversations. They'll be able to do simple jobs like provide information about services and businesses. 
  • Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology is hosting its annual “startup week.” The goal is to help students turn innovations into businesses. Participants will take part in design challenges and meet with potential investors where they get to pitch their ideas.