9 Young Inventors Who May Just Save the World

These kids prove that big ideas sometimes come in small packages. (Photo: Sunny studio/Shutterstock)

Just when I start to worry about the fate of the world, along comes a new generation of innovators who are making big changes in the way things are done. From bioluminescent windows to planting wetlands to prevent cholera outbreaks, these kids redefine what it means to think outside the box — and it's safe to say that most of these kids are just getting warmed up. The nine youths here are all winners of the Brower Youth Awards, which since 2000 has celebrated the accomplishments of young environmental leaders. The ceremony for this year's winners will be Tuesday in San Francisco.

Nikita Rafikov of Evans, Georgia. Nikita may be young, but he has big plans for the future, and he has the ideas to get him there. Rafikov hopes to attend college early, and at the rate he is going, it's a safe bet to assume that he will. The 11-year-old developed a way to embed GFP, or green florescent protein, into windows to create efficient glass and lighting. GFP is the protein found in certain jellyfish that creates those cool bioluminescence effects seen in nature photography. By embedding this protein into windows, Rafikov has found a way to light homes without the use of electricity. Check out Rafikov and his big idea in the video above.

Sean Russell

Sean Russell. (Photo courtesy of Stow It Don't Throw It)

Sean Russell of North Port, Florida. Growing up near the ocean, Sean was interested in protecting marine environments. At 16, he created the Stow It-Don’t Throw It Project, an effort to combat the negative impact of marine debris on marine wildlife, especially discarded fishing line and gear. Through his project, Russell and fellow volunteers repurpose tennis ball containers into fishing line recycling bins and distribute them to anglers while educating them about the importance of proper disposal of lines. Stow It-Don't Throw It now has partner organizations in 10 states. Sean also leads the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit to help other kids learn how to launch their own conservation projects.

Ana Humphrey of Alexandria, Virginia. I'm not sure what's more impressive about Ana Humphrey — her mad math skills, or her uncanny ability to utilize them in real-life scenarios. Humphrey has developed a calculator, the Wetlands Are Needed for Bacteria Removal Calculator (nicknamed WANBRC) to calculate how much wetland is needed to keep waterways clean in threatened areas and prevent deadly cholera outbreaks, particularly after natural disasters such as earthquakes that disturb regular waterway access.

Doorae Shin

Doorae Shin. (Photo courtesy of Brower Youth Awards)

Doorae Shin of Honolulu, Hawaii. As a freshman at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus, Shin enjoyed taking scenic walks in and around her community. And it was on one of these walks that she first noticed EPS foam (better known as Styrofoam) food packaging littering the streets and sidewalks. Shin soon learned about the devastating impact Styrofoam debris has on marine ecosystems. With help from the Surfrider Foundation, Shin led a group of students on a petition drive calling for a ban on Styrofoam products on campus. The petition gathered 1,000 signatures and the university passed a resolution banning single-use foam packaging from all campus dining locations. Since that victory, Shin has been campaigning to get the state to ban Styrofoam products. Shin will soon start working as the first student sustainability coordinator for the University of Hawaii.

Sahil Doshi of Pittsburgh. This 14-year-old innovator recently developed PolluCell, a battery that uses carbon dioxide and other waste materials, clearing the atmosphere of greenhouse gases and providing a low-cost alternative to electricity in developing countries.

Tiffany Carey

Tiffany Carey. (Photo courtesy of Brower Youth Awards)

Tiffany Carey of Detroit, Michigan. Tiffany Carey is a young eco-innovator to watch for two important reasons: she has a strong desire to protect the environment, and a unique ability to encourage other young people to get involved. As an environmental studies major at the University of Michigan, Carey developed an experiment to test the effect of pollen levels on asthma rates in urban areas. She also recruited students from Detroit’s Western International High School to help her collect and interpret the data.

Over the course of the three-year study period, Carey and her team of ninth- and 10th-grade biology students placed homemade pollen collectors in vacant lots, parks, and other areas in the community to measure the levels of ragweed pollen, which is notorious for causing allergic reactions. The team determined that these vacant lots were large sources of ragweed and a big contributor to allergy and asthma issues in urban kids. So they developed a plan to promote mowing and urban reforestation in these areas in order to minimize ragweed. Carey took her project one step further, evaluating the effect that participating in this project had on her young recruits. She found that many of the kids went on to study science and remain involved in ecological issues.

Lynnae Shuck

Lynnae Shuck. (Photo courtesy of Brower Youth Awards)

Lynnae Shuck of Fremont, California. After a positive volunteer experience at a nearby wildlife refuge, Lynnae wanted to find a way to teach more kids about the role of refuges and give them more opportunities to help protect and preserve them. So she spearheaded the Junior Refuge Ranger Program at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. As part of the Junior Refuge Ranger program, kids aged 8 to 11 participate in labs, habitat hikes, and birding expeditions to learn about conservation, endangered species protection, habitat restoration, and environmental awareness. Shuck hopes to expand her program to all 555 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge system.

David Cohen of Dallas. David Cohen's big idea is the perfect example of how clever and creative kids can be when they are allowed to think outside the box. Cohen was learning about earthworms in science class when he wondered if anyone had ever built a robotic earthworm. Doing so, he reasoned might have some useful applications — namely, for finding victims after a fire, earthquake or flood. He built and wrote the code behind a prototype robot that could be used to squeeze into small or dangerous locations where humans or search dogs would be unable to go. By loading the robot with heat-sensing technology, GPS, and other life-saving programs, Cohen's robot could be used to find and rescue people safely and efficiently.

Jai Kumar of South Riding, Virginia. Jai likes to invent things, especially things that provide simple solutions to everyday problems. The 12-year-old middle-schooler has created a gaming system for the senior center where he works as well as an automatic light dimmer that senses sound levels in the school cafeteria. But what landed him on this list of eco-innovators is his window-mounted solar-powered air filtration device designed for developing counties where air pollution is very high. The device uses inexpensive components to purify the air before it enters the houses. Simple. Brilliant. Life-saving.