AT A VERY YOUNG AGE, when he wasn't playing with his chemistry set, Philip Streich was trying to build robots from broken electrical devices and toys. Today, the 17-year-old homeschooler is taking advanced graduate courses in science at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, near the 500-acre farm where he lives. He has six patents pending, is cofounder of a small start-up company, and reads C&EN every week.
C&EN first met Streich in Madison, Wis., during a workshop on bionanotechnology for journalists. He was there to talk about his research on carbon nanotubes, which he started at the age of 14. In a polished and confident manner, he told a group of reporters how he had disproved the notion that carbon nanotubes are insoluble. His work eventually led to the discovery that graphite can be dissolved in solution to yield pure, individually isolated graphene sheets.
That discovery led him and his mentor, James P. Hamilton, professor of chemistry and engineering physics at UW Platteville, to start the company Graphene Solutions. According to Streich, graphene is the strongest material in the world and, like carbon nanotubes, could be used to make ultrastrong, yet ultralight, composite materials. "Graphene could replace silicon in computer chips to lead to nanocomputers that are thousands of times faster, smaller, and more efficient than today's computers," he says. It could also be used to build an ultraconductive transparent electrode for applications such as solar cells or liquid-crystal displays, he notes.
C&EN contacted Streich after the Madison workshop to find out what inspired him to pursue scientific research at such a young age. His story is a passionate one, and one that has already motivated kids around the world.
Streich was born in Princeton, N.J., and attended public schools there until the age of 12. He says he wasn't interested in science or math, or for that matter, school at all. "I was more interested in just having fun with my friends and goofing off. Public school was not interesting for me. I was really bored," he says.
His father was a bond trader on Wall Street in New York City and commuted to work from New Jersey. Although that commute was always rough on the family, it was Sept. 11, 2001, that changed everything, Streich says. "My dad's best friend worked on the top floor of the World Trade Center, and my best friend's dad died, too. It was traumatic," he recalls.
After 9/11, Streich finished the school year in Princeton, and the following summer his family moved to rural Platteville. At first, he says, he hated living on a farm, four hours away from a major city. Today, however, he appreciates living closer to nature and has turned into quite the environmentalist.
In addition to the patents he has pending related to his work on the solubility of carbon nanotubes, Streich has a patent pending for a hydrogen storage device that he designed for use on his family's farm. He hopes to install windmills on the farm to renewably generate the hydrogen, but so far he has faced resistance from city council members and from his neighbors, who are concerned that the electromagnetic radiation from the windmills will negatively affect their cows.
Streich has also implemented a large conservation program on the farm, setting aside more than 100 acres for natural prairie grasses and trees to prevent soil erosion. He says he is concerned about the environment, particularly with respect to global warming and fertilizer runoff from farms.
When he's not tending to the farm's animals, which include sheep, cows, and chickens, Streich says he enjoys music. "I love playing the piano, guitar, saxophone, and singing," he says. He also likes playing basketball and riding his bike through the rolling hills of rural Wisconsin. In addition, he is involved in local politics, serving as treasurer for the Democratic Party of Grant County, and he did some work for the Barack Obama presidential campaign.
WHEN C&EN caught up with Streich, he had just returned from a science fair in Mexico. He wasn't there to present his research to a panel of judges, but rather, he was invited to motivate high school students and first-year undergraduates to do their own research and perhaps start their own companies.
Last summer, the Chinese government gave Streich a free trip to China as part of a prize for winning an international science fair. There, he reached out to Chinese students, hoping to motivate them to pursue scientific research.
His own research has taken him in several exciting directions. Prior to working on the solubility of carbon nanotubes, Streich worked with Timothy Zauche, a professor of chemistry at UW Platteville, to develop a soilless potting mix. That year, he also tested estrogen levels in local stream water and worked on enhancing the cleaning properties of a polymer solution that could be sprayed onto hard-to-clean surfaces such as optical lenses.
Last summer, Streich had the opportunity to work in Angela Belcher's lab in the department of materials science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a project that combined biology and nanotechnology. "I helped develop the first virus-based cathode, which is more than twice as efficient as lithium-ion batteries today," he says.
Streich is looking forward to officially starting college next fall and is hoping to get accepted to Harvard University. He is unsure what he wants to major in but says that in addition to science, he has a strong interest in humanities and politics.