Vithulan Suthakaran, 17, a junior at Florida Atlantic University High School, recently placed first in the environmental engineering category at the 2018 State Science and Engineering Fair of Florida (SSEF). He also received the “Dr. Nelson Ying Grand Award,” given to the top eight projects at SSEF.
More than 900 middle school and high school students participated in the three-day science project exhibit in Lakeland. The event is considered one of the most prestigious science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions in Florida.
Suthakaran, a Boca Raton native, developed an artificial leaf to create a transportable device to convert carbon dioxide emissions into a source of oxygen. He said his device could be used to reduce air pollution or be taken to space to provide oxygen. While many researchers have been attempting to develop an artificial leaf, Suthakaran said his is much more efficient and inexpensive.
“My project uses a natural bacteria found in water to conduct photosynthesis and has 98 percent efficiency of filtering out carbon dioxide and converting it into oxygen,” he said. “The others out there only have about 1 to 2 percent efficiency.”
Suthakaran’s love of science began at FAU’s A.D. Henderson University School when he joined SeaPerch, an underwater robotics team. He soon started participating in local science fairs and enjoyed putting his education into practice.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to study until I started competing in science fairs,” he said. “I was able to build hands-on projects and use what I had learned in the classroom.”
His first major project was a robot designed to clean up oil spills. The device, called SEA Skimmer, was an inexpensive, autonomous oil skimmer that could decontaminate oil from large bodies of water at a rate nearly three times faster than current devices on the market. The project earned him a first-place finish at the 2017 FAU Wave competition.
“I grew up visiting marine centers with my parents so I’ve always enjoyed creating things that can improve the environment,” he said.
In addition to his first-place finish at SSEF, Suthakaran was recently named the 2018 FAU Undergraduate Researcher of the Year for FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. He also is a recipient of FAU’s Wilkes Honors College Science Merit Scholarship; the Sierra Club Florida Cantwell Award for Outstanding Environmental Sciences Project; and the Florida Engineering Foundation Committed to Engineering Education Award.
Suthakaran said he hopes to patent his artificial leaf project and start a business with his invention.