It was sometimes tough to find a place at the dining room table from Thanksgiving to March in the Jordan house near Ignacio. Isaac Jordan, 17, often had it staked out working on his science fair project.
The inconvenience paid off beyond the most ambitious of family dreams: Jordan took home the Best of Show award in the 2018 Colorado Science and Engineering Fair.
Next week, the family is off to Pittsburgh where Isaac will compete with 1,800 students from more than 75 countries from May 13 to 18 in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. In addition, his sister, Marissa, 14, has earned observer status at the fair with her own project.
“I didn’t think I would win it. I was pretty surprised. I went from second in regionals to first in state,” he said with a shrug.
Jordon had won his category, engineering, so he knew he would place somewhere.
“I was thinking fourth or fifth. When they got to second, and my name hadn’t been called, I thought: ‘Nope, it can’t be.’ When they called my name, I was, like, speechless.”
Jordan’s project, “A Novel Approach for Sensing Seismic Events: Applications of Graphene Nano Flake Powder Composites,” could eventually replace a seismograph costing $13,000 to $20,000 with flakes of powdered graphene-silicon, about a fingernail in size, that Jordan can make on his parents’ dining room table for about $10 per flake.
“If I scaled it, they could be made for a lot cheaper,” he said.
Jordan says a lot of science is persistence, and his project this year is a refinement and more advanced end product of the same flakes from last year’s project.
This year’s model is 10 times more sensitive than last year’s, and his father, Michael Jordan, noted the flakes can detect energy down to 1 Newton, a unit of force needed to accelerate 1 kilogram of force to 1 meter per second squared, basically, a really, really tiny amount of force.
Isaac Jordan can measure his heartbeat through the floor with the flakes. He sees it as a viable alternatives in impoverished countries where the expense of seismographs is a barrier for widespread use.
The flakes also have other applications, for instance, structural mechanics – things like testing airplane wings.
“People are always finding new uses for it,” he said.
A friend of his father, who is in the natural gas industry, thinks it can be used to more efficiently measure gas and liquid flow through pipelines.
The project originated after Jordan shelved an earlier idea, to use the properties of graphene to make better batteries, as impractical and requiring more dollars than he could round up.
Instead, he was reading a study about scientists using graphene and Silly Putty to measure force, and the poor results they were getting.
Jordan, who has been competing in science fairs since he was in sixth grade, suspected a better substance could be found than Silly Putty. “A lot of science is being able to see what others are doing and making it better,” he said.
His first replacement for the children’s clay was silicon. It was the first choice because Marissa had plenty of it for her own science fair project, creating a robotic gripper glove to aid people who had lost dexterity in their hands.
Marissa’s project has also been awarded – it was one of 300 projects selected from about 2,500 entries in the national Broadcom Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering Rising Stars competition last year – and it has earned her observer status to the same international science fair in which Jordan will compete.
Immediately, the graphene-silcon combination was giving Isaac better results measuring force on his dining room table than the results reported by the scientists who had a research laboratory at their disposal.
For months, Jordan tried replacing silicon with other substances, looking for one that worked better, but they always failed to match the measurement sensitivity of silicon.
Jordan’s father said his son also spent months trying to re-create the level of measurement he got with his first silicon experiment – finally recognizing that he never fully cured the silicon in his first flakes and his later experiments using fully cured silicon never matched the first results. But persistence paid off, and Jordan finally re-created his first exceptional experiment.
Since then, he’s gradually refined the product to make it ever more sensitive.
In his quest, he’s created his own shaker table, a piece of laboratory equipment used to measure seismic performance and vibrations, when he couldn’t get his hands on one in the region.
Now, Jordan, who is in his final semester of high school at the Southwest Colorado eSchool, where he’s taking three college-level courses while holding down two part-time jobs, is focused on applying to college.
Fort Lewis College, Grand Canyon University and Colorado State are top choices. He said he likes them because they would be most affordable for him and his family.
At 17, Jordan has precocious appreciation of economics. His father said he recently bought a used 2010 Ford Escape because of its practicality and good gas mileage. He had been saving and paid cash for it.
Despite the cost, Jordan may look into Cal Tech, the most prominent seismographic university in the world.
After talking with a Cal Tech professor at a science fair, Jordan said the professor gave him his card and told him to contact him – he would ensure Jordan got access to the university’s laboratories.
He has yet to take the professor up on his offer. He views Cal Tech as perhaps out of his reach financially, and he notes, its acceptance rate is a discouraging 6 percent.
But Jordan said he may examine if his work in seismography can be used to gain a scholarship and boost his chances of acceptance.