H2Foam (lignin foam) is a sustainable biosorbent that can remove heavy metals and oils from contaminated water at an efficient rate.

Photo of Jessica Yan
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Please confirm you meet the following criteria

  • We have submitted the supplemental form linked in the description above
  • We are aged between 14 - 20 as of February 11, 2021
  • We live in the United States or its territories (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa)
  • We are not employed by, or directly related (parents or siblings) to a current General Motors (GM) or Ashoka employee
  • We have been working on this project for at least three months
  • We consent to Ashoka and/or GM featuring our work on their website, social media, and in other materials regarding this Challenge using the information in our application
  • We confirm we have the rights to use and share any content uploaded on this entry form

Date You Started Your Project


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Start-Up (first few activities have happened)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Water pollution is a serious concern affecting the world today. Caused by ineffective wastewater treatment, water crises and oil spills negatively impact our environment as well as humans. In fact, around 1 in 3 people lack access to clean water globally due to water contamination, and currently, marine animals and their environments are put at risk due to water pollution, which is why we need a sustainable approach to tackling this issue.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

One approach to solving this problem is with lignin foam, which can effectively adsorb both heavy metals and oils from water. By combining Kraft lignin, plastic polymers, and activated carbon and heating it up in an oven through a simple baking process, lignin foams are formed. Because lignin foams are effective in removing heavy metals and oils from water, it provides many beneficial impacts that include eliminating water pollution. Every year, the world generates around 400 million tons of plastic waste and around 35 million tons in the US alone. In addition, plastic waste pollution is becoming a growing concern as it leads to significant stress on the environment and animals. This matter will only become even more worse if nothing is done to stop this, which is why lignin foams are a great way to incorporate plastic to lessen the detrimental impacts. Similarly, lignin and wood waste are bio-waste materials that also go unused, wasting around 50 million tons and 37 million tons respectively, which is why making use of these materials in creating lignin foams will greatly help alleviate the impacts of water pollution and open access to clean water sources for millions of people.

3. Please tell us how you are using science, technology, engineering or math to address your environmental challenge.

When I first began my path towards research, I was unsure of what to do. There were so many paths available for me to take, but one thing that struck out to me the most was find ways to combat pollution: specifically, water pollution. After spending many hours exploring what approaches to take in order to tackle water pollution, lignin became a topic of interest. Lignin contains all of the important properties for efficiently removing heavy metals and oils from water, which include a high surface area for removing large amounts at one time and a low density that allows it to float. However, because lignin is typically in a powder form, it can be difficult to recover when used in real-world scenarios. Thus, I continued to further research possible ways to transform lignin into a more geometric, solid form. Using my science and research background, I was able to develop lignin foams by letting lignin undergo a simple baking process. After creating the foams, I continued to experiment and test the foams to evaluate the amounts of metals and oils the foams can take in every time. Finally, I used various math and science skills to calculate the removal percentages to show the results.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

When the Flint water crisis occurred a few years ago, I felt surprised yet worried about how there was nothing that people could do to resolve the crisis quickly. Before the occurrence, I always assumed that our country had the innovative technologies to resolve such crises, and I was disappointed to realize that my assumption was false. Even now, there are still lingering effects from the water crisis, and this motivated me to explore and research various ideas to tackling such water issues. Thus, I spent many days discovering different solutions and alternatives to current methods presented to resolving water pollution. One idea led to another, which led me to discover lignin, and over the years, I became more knowledgeable about what methods my community needs to take when facing water pollution. Now, I am further motivated to be a changemaker and help my community develop itself.

5. Video (Keep it simple, your phone on selfie-mode is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

Through the countless days and hours spent reading manuscripts and performing research, I finally set my eyes on lignin, which is essentially leftover wood powder from pulp mills. Over the past few months, I explored the functionality and properties of lignin. Through my research, I noticed that lignin's molecular structure is capable of removing both heavy metals and oils. Thus, I began to develop lignin foams and tested their removal capacities in experiments to test their effectiveness.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

While there are many solutions to removing heavy metals and oils from contaminated water, many of the methods are uneconomical and ineffective. For example, some methods used to remove heavy metals include precipitation and ion exchange, which are uneconomical and have disposal issues. In addition, methods to removing oils include bioremediation, oil booms usage, controlled burning, and skimming. However, these methods are also ineffective and expensive when compared to the cost of creating lignin foams. Therefore, lignin foam is the most ideal and sustainable option to resolving water issues.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made.

While my project is still in its idea-stage, I plan to promote my idea within my community first as a potential water-filtering technology. Lignin foams are a great way to clean and filter water, protecting the safety of the people in my community. After I've gathered some feedback on my project from different people, I will go back to finding ways to better improve my project in various aspects. Once that has been done, I want to further communicate with local governments and companies that manage wastewater systems to present a potential alternative to resolving local water issues. I would like to discuss with them the importance of acting quickly in possible scenarios that can include facing the corrosion of pipes where metals are leaking into the community's water supply and using lignin foams to quickly remove such metals and prevent it from reaching an extent like the Flint crisis.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

In the near future, I hope to further improve my current project by also researching how other countries are affected by water pollution and how they are combatting contaminated water issues. Because various communities and countries face water pollution in different ways, I want to be able to create a product that caters to the various needs that different areas face by spending some of my time learning more about a specific country. In addition, I hope to also be able to incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning into my project idea that can potentially be used to see which communities or countries are in need of water resources and assistance, considering that we are living in a rapidly-advancing technological world.

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

A few months ago, I hosted a virtual session to teach younger students about the importance of saving our planet. I introduced them to various environmental problems affecting our world today and discussed how environmental sustainability is important to save our world. As I went over these topics, I noticed the sparkle in their eyes as they stared at every slide, seeing how much our world needs them to care about environmental sustainability. Then, I knew that our world is safe in their hands.

11. How would you partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

I would like to partner with other changemakers to make a difference by collaborating with them to potentially create a new, innovative approach to resolving specific environmental challenges facing our world today. In addition, I hope to partner with others to host outreach sessions to inform other younger people about the importance of preserving our world and its environment while also promoting our solutions to various problems to show how they can make a difference in their communities.

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

I would first discuss the harmful impacts that polluted and contaminated water causes to the environment and the life surrounding it. By explaining how millions of people around the world lack access to clean water and sanitation sources, I hope to convey the significance of finding solutions to these water problems for others to understand that there are changes that need to be made to help protect our world. Finally, I would show them how my project is capable of sustainably cleaning water.

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors

14. Which of the following types of expertise would be most useful for you? You’ll be able to select only one option.

  • Project Plan & Strategy

Are you employed, or directly related (grand-parents, parents, sibling) to a GM or Ashoka employee?

  • No

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka or General Motors, who was it?


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1 comment

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Photo of Matthew Marchyok

Thank you for your vision! Calling out the importance of access to clean water is critical. Never forgetting the social and political crisis of Flint, Michigan is crucial. Your solutions are not only economical, but practical and dynamic. I can only imagine your technology/process influencing many aspects of industry.