The energy produced by interactions between plants and bacteria in the soil got 18-year-old Reid D'Amico thinking.
Is there a way to capture that energy and turn it into electricity?
Perhaps it could power streetlights in a park, he thought.
Researching the answer to his question earned the Hilton Head Preparatory School student $1,500 at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, held May 8-13 in Los Angeles.
His project, a comparison of the voltage produced by plant microbial fuel cells, attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force and won a special award from its research laboratory.
"I was really excited," D'Amico said. "I had to go on stage in front of all these teachers, scientists, even Nobel laureates."
The Intel Fair is the world's largest high school science research competition and is a program of the nonprofit Society for Science & the Public. Students earn the right to compete by winning top prizes at regional science fairs, such as the Sea Island Regional Science Fair in Beaufort County.
This year, more than 1,500 young innovators and scientists were selected to compete at the Intel fair, and about 400 received awards, according to a news release from the organization. They were selected from affiliate fairs in 65 countries, regions and territories.
This year was D'Amico's fourth trip to the Intel fair. Most of his past projects also have involved environmental science, he said.
He began work on this year's project in July by contacting researchers who work with microbial fuel cells. That included an email exchange with a expert in the Netherlands to help him develop a specific idea for his project.
D'Amico said he spent about 14 hours a week for nearly a year working on it.
"It is work, but it really pays off," he said. "You know that you're working for something that's worth it."
D'Amico said he met aspiring young scientists from around the world at the Intel fair, including students from Brazil, Japan and Saudi Arabia who set up their projects near him.
He also met students from across the country who plan to attend Duke University, where D'Amico will begin studying biomedical engineering in the fall.
"It's cool to get to meet a bunch of kids who have the same interests as you," he said.