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Nature and its effects lead two students to international science fair

Munster senior Nathan Kondamuri 18 is photographed ColumbiAvenue bridge over Little Calumet River Munster Ind. Thursday May 9 2013. Kondamuri

Munster senior Nathan Kondamuri, 18, is photographed at the Columbia Avenue bridge over the Little Calumet River in Munster, Ind. Thursday May 9, 2013. Kondamuri travels Sunday to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix. | Stephanie Dowell~Post-Tribune

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Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, May 13-17, Phoenix, Ariz.

NWI Boone Grove and Munster High entrants:

Brandon Benninger’s project: “Invasive Barge In: Is a Voltage Void Produced by Barges Crossing Electronic Fish Barriers?”

Nathan Kondamuri’s project: “The Improved Efficiency and Enhanced Lifetime of a Solar Cell Based on Modified Photosynthetic Pigments”

To learn more: www.societyforscience.org/intelisef2013

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Updated: June 14, 2013 6:11AM



Brandon Benninger and Nathan Kondamuri have embraced their “geek” side.

The two Northwest Indiana teens — Benninger from Boone Grove High and Kondamuri from Munster — are proud of their accomplishments as the region’s lone competitors in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair that begins Monday in Phoenix, Ariz.

The competition has attracted 1,600 teens in 63 countries from China to Costa Rica.

“It’s not just a geekfest,” says Benninger, 18. “One thing that really sunk in — if you’re going to the International, you were picked out of three million projects.”

There’s serious cash on the line too. The top award is $75,000 financed by Intel founder Gordon Moore. There’s also a couple $50,000 prizes for budding young scientists and smaller awards.

Both teens say elements of nature played roles in their projects that they’ve researched for the past three years.

Benninger, 18, just picked up a $7,500 award at the Indiana State Science Fair for his project that centers on electronic barriers thwarting Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes.

Kondamuri just returned from Washington where he was the lone Hoosier selected to participate in the White House Science Fair where he presented his project to President Obama’s energy adviser.

Northwest Indiana’s flood of 2008 inspired Kondamuri after he saw the power nature unleashed in Munster as streets closed and homes, including his own, filled with water. “That was the first time I saw the negative effects of nature. I wanted to use it in a more positive way,” he said.

Kondamuri’s project focuses on harnessing the power of the sun to create a more efficient solar cell and eventually, a new alternative energy option to fossil fuels.

Both teens are friends, meeting at science fair competitions.

Kondamuri will attend Stanford University in the fall and study chemical engineering.

Benninger, whose parents own an RV dealership, Recreation Plantation in Lynnwood, Ill., will attend Valparaiso University in the fall and then transfer to Purdue University his sophomore year to study environmental sciences.

Benninger has researched his Asian carp project for three years. He theorizes that the existing systems of electronic barriers to keep Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan are ineffective. His project focuses on installing the electronic barriers, that work similarly to invisible fences for dogs, along the side of ship canals, not in the floor.

He has patented his idea and is already in talks with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who are considering a pilot project.

Benninger’s sponsor, Boone Grove science teacher Ken Snow has nurtured several science fair competitors during his 30-year tenure. Benninger has gone to the international competition three times and Snow says 22 students have gone in the past 18 years.

“Brandon has such diverse interests. He gets on to something and he stays with it. I don’t know of many who have the passion he does.”

Like Benninger, Kondamuri downplays the geek side of science. As the son of two physicians, he’s loved science all his life. “I’ve met a lot of people from other countries and have a good network of friends,” he said.

Kondamuri has gone to the international fair all four years of his high school career.

Kondamuri says his project could aid struggling third world countries by affording cheaper, alternative solar energy. His research focuses on a new solar cell that creates electricity by mimicking photosynthesis.

“Right now, gas companies control us. Harnessing solar energy could well surpass the efficiencies of fossil fuels.”



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