Spotlight on a Young Scientist: Zhilin Wang

Editor's note: We're celebrating this year's impressive 20 Google Science Fair finalist projects over 20 days in our Spotlight on a Young Scientist series. Learn more about each of these inspiring young people and hear what inspires them in their own words.

Name: Zhilin Wang

Home: Singapore

Age Category: 16-18

Project title: Zinc air batteries for affordable, renewable energy storage 

Zhilin has used his large capacity for wonder to question everything since he was a young boy. This strong curiosity for not just what goes on around him but what happens in other countries led him to understand how developing countries access renewable energy. To speed up the slow chemical reaction produced by oxidizing zinc with oxygen from the air, Zhilin built an aerogel consisting of carbon nanotubes and graphene. His gel sped up the oxidation process, allowing faster storage of renewable energy. He looks forward to testing his aerogel in villages that don’t have electricity  rather than the multiple sources we rely on today. This system, with a little more development, could have expansive use in areas ranging from wearable computing to location-based applications, where an instant and accurate indoor 3D positioning system is in high demand.

What was the inspiration behind your project? 

Looking at the world around me, I can’t help but marvel at how far our search for novel materials has come to improve our everyday living. Nowadays, such materials are literally everywhere: in our smartphones, our clothes and even, for some of us, our bodies. Once in a while, when I find out about a novel material, I get really excited and dream about how it might shape our future.

Graphene aerogel is one such material. Think about this: you have a solution of graphene and a solvent, say water. If you can remove the solvent to leave behind only the graphene framework (or more illustratively, a graphene skeleton), you have yourself a graphene aerogel with some curious characteristics. It is super conductive, ultralight – reaching below the density of atmospheric air in some samples – and has a contact surface area matched by few. This means that it can potentially make astounding improvements in many of the things we use on a daily basis. I was eager to see if it can be applied to something that it had never been tested on before. So when a need for improving the efficiency of batteries came my way, I thought, “why not use graphene aerogel?”

With a stroke of luck, the graphene aerogel turned out to be suitable for the battery. Yet, I didn’t want to end my project there; I wanted to see if the improved battery could directly impact the lives of people. Having reflected upon some of the things I was grateful for, I realized that one of the most wonderful gifts I have received is a quality education. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to read my favorite books, learn so much about the world or even participate in this competition. Yet, many in underdeveloped regions do not receive basic education. Despite the promotion of global education, a great deal of children are forced out of school to support their families by working on farms or in factories. The only time they could spare for education is in the evenings but even then, the scarcity of reliable lighting means they’re unable to learn in the dark, as much as they want to. Can my battery be used to light up their nights? I didn’t know for sure, so I tried to find out.

When and why did you become interested in science? 

My love for science started around the time I was in primary school, when I found myself so curious about everything around me. You can say that every opportunity for me to discover something new was as irresistible as a candy laid before me. Of the many things I wanted to know, scientific demonstrations particularly piqued my interest. They seemed almost magical – water instantly freezing on a hard knock, violent fountains formed from Coca Cola and mints. But I wasn’t satisfied with merely marveling at them. I wanted to appreciate their inner beauty and understand how they actually worked. For me, science is about having a passion for the beauty of the world around us and understanding how and why things happen in it. Isn’t that much more interesting than simply accepting things as they are?

What words of advice would you share with other young scientists? 

Never be afraid to ask questions concerning things you are curious about, for what lies ahead is either a path of discovery or at least the joy of learning something new.