12-Year-Old Peyton Robertson Develops Ingenious Polymer Sandbag for Flood Defense

video via Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge

Last fall twelve-year-old Peyton Robertson became the youngest person to win the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge with his ingenious polymer sandbag. The sandbag, which Robertson developed for flood protection, contains an expandable polymer that fills the bag when wet. Robertson designed it to be slightly denser than salt water so the bag can withstand storm surges. Robertson has a total of three inventions with patents pending, including a temperature stabilized golf ball that he designed when he was eight. Robertson describes the polymer sandbag in this video submitted to the Young Scientist Challenge and talks about his inventions in this charmingclip from The Ellen DeGeneres Show and this TED interview.

video via The Ellen DeGeneres Show


Image of Peyton Robertsson
12-year-old Peyton Robertson from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., shows off his grand-prize-winning sandbag at the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

An 12-year-old boy from Florida has designed a new kind of sandbag to better protect life and property from the ravages of saltwater floods. His invention took top honors at a science fair this week, earning him a $25,000 check and a trip to Costa Rica.

“Living in Florida, I’m keenly aware of hurricanes and saltwater flooding,” the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge grand prize winner Peyton Robertson, who is a sixth grader at the Pine Crest School in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., told NBC News.

“Super-storm Sandy really got me concerned about how people can prepare for that damage from flooding. But today, the most common method of flood protection is sandbags. They are really heavy and difficult to transport and leave gaps in between the bags. So, I redesigned the bag,” he explained.

Instead of sand, his bag is filled with a mixture of salt and an expandable polymer. When dry, it is lightweight, easy to move and easy to store. Once the bag is positioned, such as to create a barrier around a house, users hose it down with water. The polymer absorbs the water, swells and fills the volume of the bag.

“I use salt so they are heavier than any approaching seawater … but the twist is when you add salt to the bag it reduces the swelling of the polymer so you need to recalculate how much you put in,” Robertson explained.

In other words, the young scientist, who is already taking pre-calculus and trigonometry, realized an interaction between his super-absorbent polymer and salt that required him to calculate the precise mixture to add to the bag so that the full volume fills when water is added.

The bags also have a novel interlocking mechanism that connects them at their midpoints in order to prevent gaps that floodwaters can penetrate.

Robertson tested the bags in the bathtub and a kiddie pool where they easily outperformed traditional sand-filled sandbags. He next hopes to test them “in a real hurricane situation because that is the only way to figure out what glitches or whatever might be in the solution.”

As winner of the Young Scientist Challenge, he was named “America’s Top Young Scientist” at an award ceremony on Tuesday that also comes with the $25,000 check, which he can spend however he pleases, though has expressed interest in saving it for college.

In addition, Robertson and the other three top finalists will go on a trip next summer to Costa Rica. These are:

  • Brooke Martin from North Central High School in Spokane, Wash., who created the iCUPooch device that allows pet owners to video chat and give their pets a treat when away from home;
  • Srijay Kasturi, a home-school student from Reston, Va., who invented a device that helps the visually impaired detect objects in their path;
  • and Daniel Culver from Montrose High School in Montrose, Colo., who invented an indoor cookstove that reduces harmful carbon dioxide emissions.

Between now and the trip abroad, Robertson said he will continue to pursue his passions inside the classroom as well as hone his skills on the golf course, where he plays competitively.

“I usually shoot from the white tees somewhere around the low 80s, high 70s,” he said. “So, I’m pretty good.”

By ABC News

Peyton Robertson, 12, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has the enthusiasm of an infomercial king and the ingenuity of Thomas Edison.

The sixth-grader put his math and science skills as well as some real-life experience to use and created something that could help people and property during floods — the sandless sandbag.

Today he was named the winner of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for his sandbag, which could revolutionize the way we protect ourselves from flooding.

ABC peyton roberton 131024 16x9 608 Sixth Grader Invents Sandless Sandbags to Save Lives and Property in FloodsABC News

“I had a really terrifying experience with a hurricane,” said Peyton, who attends Stanford University’s Middle School. “When I was 4, I experienced [Hurricane] Wilma.”

As Hurricane Wilma whipped overhead in October 2005, Peyton and his family huddled in a closet and watched the storm bring damage and death to their area. Wilma –  the third hurricane of the 2005 season to reach category 5 status and the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic — killed at least 62 people in its entire trajectory.

“Eighty percent of the $44 billion in damage since 2005 was caused by saltwater flooding,” Peyton said. “[But] Superstorm Sandy [in October 2012] really made me think about how people can prepare for floods.”

Peyton, who has been solving math problems since he was 3, eventually came up with the sandless sandbag.

“Instead of filling it with sand, I filled it with just the right amount of ultra-fluid polymer,” he said. “What’s amazing is that when you pick these bags up and they’re not wet, they only weigh a pound or two.”

Unlike regular sandbags, which are heavy and hard to carry, Peyton’s is filled with chemicals and salt that only expand when doused with water. The bags are ultra-portable when they are dry and will not float away when they are wet.

Experts lauded his invention and said that the sandless sandbag could someday save innumerable lives and property.

“He understands the big picture. He thinks in terms of the impact on society. He’s thinking in terms of safety for the people around this area,” said Dr. Antonio Nanni, the engineering chair at the University of Miami. “He’s got a great idea. We’d love to have him at [the University of Miami.]”

Peyton, though, has to get through middle school and high school first, but until then, the young scientist will continue tinkering and inventing,

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