Catrina Nowakowski, 17, first got the idea walking through the yard with her dad, realizing snow never piles on the compost piles.
That's because there’s heat underneath. “It’s heat that’s just going out into the air,” said Nowakowski, of Mystic. “It’s something you can harness.”
Based on that idea, 12 students from Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School in Groton competed against a nationwide pool of students and won a $6,500 grant from the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams program to build a water-heater powered by compost. The school was one of only 16 named in the country.
The team will build their proposed invention and present it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in June. They received the check Wednesday.
“When you say ‘MIT’ to anybody, automatically that’s like ‘Woah,’” said Christopher McVeigh, a co-instructor in Grasso’s bioscience and environmental technology program, who was impressed by the students. “To take a science-based shop and have it producing on the standards of MIT, that’s pretty high end.”
Larry Fritch, department head of the shop at Grasso, and Jason White, a chemical engineering graduate student at the University of Connecticut are leading the team.
Nowakowski came up with the idea, then White worked with the students to write a grant proposal to obtain the money and take it from a concept to reality. The group applied at the end of the last school year and heard back last month it had been chosen.
"We've already sort of won," Nowakowski said.
Here’s the premise of their project: Rotting compost produces heat, so the students want to possibly compress the pile, create a device to turn over the compost, build a system of pipes to transfer the heat to water, then use a hot water system to heat the greenhouse at the school through the winter.
They’re now testing combinations of green compost (like vegetable scraps and grass clippings) and brown compost (like dead leaves) to find out which combination produces the most heat.
Nowakowski measured the temperature inside a compost pile outside the school and it read over 100 degrees.
Tori Prejean, 17, of Groton, another member of the team, said she believes the project will work. She said it's also different, because it's something everyone can use.
"I was like, absolutely excited," she said of the MIT grant.
“They’re a take charge group,” Fritch said. “You give them a concept, and they run with it.”