Freshman Srinivas Balagopal is challenging both the current standard approaches to reversing desertification and the clichés of a family road trip.
Even as a freshman, Balagopal is a seasoned veteran of scientific inquiry, having competed in several past science fairs and having been offered a patent for a fog harvester he manufactured in eighth grade. This year, he received several accolades for his project “Amending Desert Soil to Reverse Desertification”, including a first prize award in the physical sciences and engineering category of the Synopsys Science and Technology Championship, an honorable mention in the environmental engineering category of the California State Science Fair, and a commendation by the American Meteorological Society.
This heavily decorated project, however, has surprisingly down to earth origins, literally. Last year, on a family road trip through the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India, Balagopal noticed that many impoverished communities were being displaced because of desertification.
“This hit me pretty hard especially because I have family members living near this region. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t even know what desertification even was at the time,” Balagopal said.
Impassioned by this worthy cause, Balagopal researched the topic heavily and embarked on a project to manufacture a device that would restore desertified soil.
He recruited physics teacher Val Monticue as a mentor, who guided him through the planning and prototyping phases.
“I had a very different idea initially, and she guided me through some of the flaws of it,” Balagopal said, “She helped set me on track.”
Balagopal conducted many experimental trials before finalizing the design, which is analogous to a sandwich, where the “bread” is a lattice of coconut fibers and the “contents” are a mixture of basalt rock dust and charcoal produced from plant matter like fruit peels. The device in its entirety is composed only
of plant matter and rocks, an easy, low-tech option for poorer communities.
The device is slightly larger than a human hand, and 30 to 40 pounds of it can sustain up to ten football fields worth of desertified land. $500 worth of conventional fertilizer is needed to sustain a region of this scale, while Balagopal’s installment plan amounts to a mere $68 to revitalize the same region.
“I’m not trying to say this one product will solve world hunger just like that, but I think that for poorer agrarian communities that live on the fringes of arable land, my product is a great way to kick start the process of reclaiming that land,” Balagopal said.
For now, Balagopal is in contact with several professionals who have expressed interest in his product, and he is delighted that what started as a personal vacation for him could have a mammoth public impact.
“I never expected a road trip to take me this far,” Balagopal said.