To say children are the future isn’t an overstatement or a cliché, especially when today’s teenagers are driving innovation around the world. These young, bright minds are engineering everything from clean, renewable energy methods to a dispersant that can neutralize carcinogens. Meet three of the world’s most ingenious inventors who just happen to be in their teens:
Just now 20 years old, Keiana Cavé joined the Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2017 at age 18, but the research that would make her a standout started when she was only 15. Following the BP oil spill of 2010, Cavé suspected that an oil spill was more dangerous than just a layer of pollution on the ocean surface. Her research proved her suspicions, and she was the first to discover that the reaction of UV rays from the sun on the oil and ocean water forms carcinogenic chemicals.
Although she hadn’t planned on a future in lab-work and chemical engineering, Cavé’s dedicated research catapulted her into a non-stop career as an entrepreneur, scientist, and speaker. After proving the carcinogens existed, Cavé earned second place out of 2,600 participants in the 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Part of her prize was NASA naming asteroid “2000 GD136” after her, but most importantly, the fair inspired her to push her research further. Cavé invented a carcinogen-fighting molecule and created the startup Mare, which services companies by neutralizing carcinogens in their products without compromising the product itself. Chevron funded her research through Mare with $1.2 million in 2016, and in 2017, Chevron acquired Mare.
Now a chemical engineering student at the University of Michigan, Cavé continues her research and is currently developed a powder dispersant of her carcinogen-fighting molecule. She also works to empower other young women of color in STEM fields.
Elvis Zhang is another young inventor-turned-entrepreneur and member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 list at 19 years old. When he was 13, Zhang moved to Philadelphia from Shenzhen, China and by his junior year in high school began trying to tackle the global problem of air pollution. One of his main focuses was discovering a means to effectively purify air without energy consumption. His solution? A pollutants-eating microorganism and a lithium ion-battery, which Zhang developed and patented into two potentially life-changing products: an architectural material that collects and filters out air pollutants and an individual anti-pollution face-mask. These two inventions are the basis of his company Oxy2, which he founded after graduating from high school rather than pursuing a college degree.
His two inventions, respectively known as Passive Net and Oxy Facewear, could be crucial in upcoming years as we see greater urban growth, especially in Asia and Africa. Already Zhang estimates that some 640 million people are living under an extreme level of smog, among other pollutants. This number will only worsen as 68% of the world’s population shifts from rural to urban areas by 2050. Passive Net can prepare cities in advance of this population shift, since it can be installed during the construction of buildings to filter the air entering each room. Meanwhile, Oxy Facewear is a biodegradable mask designed for everyday use that can protect people from air pollutants right now. Oxy2 currently has both for-profit and non-profit divisions, allowing it to provide Oxy Facewear to the areas and people at the highest risk of air pollution-related illnesses.
18-year-old Amber Yang’s innovation story starts with the 2013 movie Gravity. The then-ninth-grader started having nightmares after seeing the movie, which stars Sandra Bullock as an astronaut desperately trying to survive after space debris destroys her shuttle. While the film may have taken several creative liberties, the main plot device, the Kessler syndrome, is a very real potentiality; it’s a scenario in which low Earth orbit reaches a critical density of objects, and a collision between two objects of intersecting orbit results in debris that causes a chain of collisions. After such a scenario, re-entering space in any capacity, including the use of satellites, would become impossible for several generations.
Yang is on her way to making sure that never happens through the use of neural networks.
In 2016 and without much previous coding experience, Yang refined her own program with artificial neural networking that tracks and predicts the movements of space debris with an astounding 98% accuracy rate— a rate that greatly surpasses the accuracy of NASA’s statistical models. Just a year later in 2017, Yang founded the company Seer Tracking and continues to work on refining her program while she attends Stanford University. She hopes to increase the program’s accuracy through the use of convolutional neural networks and deep learning in the future.