Healdsburg Teens Bring Algae Battery to Climate Fest

    Local SkillsUSA winners dream of ‘solarpunk’ future

    April 17, 2024
    GREEN TECH From left, Healdsburg High School students Jac Campbell, Henry Herrod and Ross Fitzpatrick show off their award-winning contraption on Herrod’s front porch. (Photo by Simone Wilson)

    Among the 70-plus environmental information booths slated to line the Healdsburg Plaza for the town’s second annual Climate Fest on April 21, is one that might stink a little: Three teens from Healdsburg High School have plans to show off a large battery pack they made out of living algae.

    "Our dream is basically a solar panel of algae, using photosynthesis to power homes," says team member Ross Fitzpatrick, a junior at Healdsburg High School. He calls it a "true realization" of the solarpunk movement, which he describes as "a utopian idea of the future with all solar-powered technology."

    Healdsburg’s award-winning young algae whisperers will be displaying their prototype at their local Climate Fest, also called Festival del Clima, in the plaza this Sunday.

    The focus of the second annual Climate Fest, much like the inaugural event, is "how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, both individually and collectively, in Healdsburg," says one of the organizers, Climate Action Healdsburg member Tyra Benoit. More than 2,000 people attended last year—and organizers expect an even bigger crowd this year.

    Leading up to the festival, the local "Move! Healdsburg" group will be hosting a community bike ride this Friday night, starting at 5:45pm in the plaza. The festival itself will then hit the ground running on Sunday morning with a 5k run/walk beginning at 9am, with Mayor David Hagele taking part as a guest DJ.

    BURBLING BATTERY A multi-tank contraption produces energy from swamp gas, more or less.

    During the festival, which runs from noon to 4pm, Plaza Street will serve as a "transit fair" with various alternative means of transportation, including e-bike information from Get-Away Adventures — plus 12 bikes available for test rides. Center Street, meanwhile, will be filled with booths offering plant starts and eco-friendly food, including free popsicles and "Earth Cookies" provided by many of the same bakeries that donated last year.

    Algae Power

    Among those booths and displays is the high school students’ contraption — four transparent, foot-long PVC pipes filled with natural water and blue-green algae. It actually harnesses enough power through photosynthesis to charge a common cell phone. But one day, the students who built it hope to create much larger models that could provide enough electricity to run a household—much like solar panels, but potentially cheaper.

    Fitzpatrick and two friends from school—sophomore Henry Herrod and junior Jac Campbell—won gold for their algae battery at the statewide SkillsUSA competition for excellence in the vocational arts, held in SoCal in early April. Their battery took the top prize in the "engineering technology/design" category, besting more than 20 teams who had won regional competitions across California.

    At universities in other countries, researchers have announced in recent years that they’re experimenting with harnessing photosynthesis as a power source—a field called "biophotovoltaics." Some, like a team at Cambridge, are even using algae in particular. But the Healdsburg students haven’t found any evidence of large-scale commercial endeavors that leverage this technology. "We’re looking at scaling up," Herrod says.

    The students’ project advisor, Healdsburg High School math teacher Bernadette Calhoun, agrees that the battery pack "could be scaled up easily for much grander energy possibilities."

    While the student team’s main sources for water and algae have been the Russian River and Fox Pond on the Healdsburg Ridge Open Space Preserve, there’s also an unlikely third source a couple of blocks from Herrod’s house, which he and his friends use as home base to work on their battery project.

    SLIME PIT Students have collected much of the plant matter powering their invention from this urban legend of an algae patch along Sanns Lane, near the high school. (Photo by Simone Wilson)

    It’s a mysterious urban algae patch in the middle of the sidewalk, seemingly fed by a few leaky pipes sticking out of a retaining wall. Herrod’s dad Chris, a city councilmember, has taken to calling it "that slime pit over there on Sanns Lane."

    Speaking from the Herrod family dining room, where the table has been overtaken by science-project odds and ends, the councilmember adds: "I grew up in this neighborhood, and that sidewalk’s been that way for at least 40 years. I really don’t know why."

    Because they won state, the three boys will now represent California at SkillsUSA nationals in Atlanta this June—a trip which has raised some logistical questions around algae transport.

    Derek Corsino, who oversees the SkillsUSA program at the high school, will be supervising and staying with the algae-battery team in Atlanta.

    These kids "are going to be the ones solving the big problems in the world, going forward," Corsino says.

    Climate Fest officially begins at noon in the Healdsburg Plaza, with information booths, activities for kids and grown-ups. It concludes with a concert by Rocio, La Dama de la Cumbia, beginning at 4:30pm. Additional information about Climate Fest at climateactionhealdsburg.org.

    Simone Wilson was born and raised in Healdsburg, CA, where she was the editor of the Healdsburg High School Hound's Bark. She has since worked as a local journalist for publications in San Diego, Los Angeles, New York City and the Middle East. Simone is now a senior product manager and staff writer for the Healdsburg Tribune.


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