Project Kelp

utilizing kelp to mitigate ocean acidification and provide sustainable energy.

Photo of Claire Donahue
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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?

Aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity are being endangered through Ocean Acidification; the chemical process in which carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean, which in turn, raises the acidity. Ocean Acidification, fueled by the increasing amount of CO2 in our atmosphere, is endangering crustaceans, coral reefs, and aquatic biodiversity, all the while making the water increasingly unlivable for other organisms.

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

Our answer to reversing Ocean Acidification and preserving biodiversity in our seas lies in the slimy thing that can freaks us out while we’re swimming in the ocean– kelp! Our team plans to educate our peers, our community and our elected representatives in the benefits of investing in planting, harvesting, and utilizing kelp. Excessive CO2 emissions are the culprit of the harmful chemical processes of ocean acidification. Our oceans will be healthier the less CO2 there is. Luckily, kelp and macro algae are incredible carbon sequesters, constituting less than 2% of the ocean’s surface, but 50% of the ocean’s carbon sequestration. Kelp absorbs a huge amount of the CO2 that would otherwise decompose shells and eliminate biodiversity, but it also has many other uses. Kelp is widely used as food as it’s nutritionally rich with potassium, iron, calcium, fiber, iodine, and a plethora of vitamins. It’s also used as solidifying agent in ice cream and cosmetics, and polymers extracted from it are used for bio plastics and adhesives. Kelp grows quickly (up to 24 inches in one day) with few resources, and has incredible prospects as a biofuel.

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

Water is a precious and dwindling resource in California where drought is a recurring problem. Cities across LA County are forced to mix contaminated ground water to stretch our supply. Yet farmers in California make up 80% of the state’s water consumption to grow water dependent crops. In contrast, kelp can be grown without fresh water, making it far more eco-friendly. Kelp not only boasts the ability to sequester CO2 and provide a wide range of uses, it also has a far smaller carbon footprint than other sources of food and biofuels such as corn or soy. Also, kelp does not need the harmful herbicides or pesticides that terrestrial plants rely on, and it can be cultivated in seawater or brackish water on non-arable land and does not compete for resources with conventional agriculture. Unlike vegetable oils, kelp is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids with four or more double bonds, releasing more energy when they're broken. Oil yield per acre of kelp cultures could greatly exceed the yield of current biofuels such as ethanol from corn. Currently, US is behind Asia and Scandinavia in our research to utilize kelp. We want to educate current and future leaders to accelerate our pace.

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

Growing up in Southern California, forest fires have become a yearly reality. In October, as fires burned near the coast we could smell and see the smoke enveloping the sky. It was inescapable; the thick smoking air made it almost impossible to focus in-school, and even harder to sleep at night. We knew that we needed to do something to combat climate-fueled disasters like these fires that threatened our homes and families. Climate fueled disasters have already devastated communities around the world, and they will only become more frequent if we fail to act now. It was in our Chemistry class that we first became interested in biofuels as a sustainable energy alternative, and as we continued our research we learned about the potential of kelp as a biofuel. Having grown up spending time at the beach, we were excited about the possibility of a fuel source so close to home.

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.

We began by researching, testing, and learning about kelp’s potential to address climate change. We wrote research papers, created posters, and gave presentations to share our findings. In addition, we have joined local and national environmental groups to gain new and larger platforms to raise our concern of the detrimental impact of ocean acidification from excessive CO2 emissions, and how kelp can reserve its impact and help protect the oceans along our Southern California coast.

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

We are committed climate activists who are excited about science. We raise a solution to a less-known concern - harvesting kelp to address CO2 emission and ocean acidification. Research in the US is behind Asian and Scandinavian countries. The Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies, one of the leading research centers on harvesting kelp, happens to be located 40 miles from our school and our partnership will allow us to bring the issue to the wider community. As young people, we know we will be the most affected by the climate crisis, and we’re hungry to be part of the solution.

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

Armed with data, we began testing our message by presenting it to our classmates, family members, and teachers. We also reached out to researchers at Wrigley Institute to sharpen our message with recent information. To widen our reach, we joined the Sunrise Movement, a national youth-led climate action organization that mobilizes students across the nation to fight for a healthier planet. In February 2020, we traveled to D.C. for a 3-day summit to be trained on how to organize, recruit, and mobilize community members to fight climate change. We brought those tools back to our community, and founded Sunrise Los Angeles Youth (SLAY). SLAY (IG: sunriselayouth), of which Claire is a hub coordinator now has close to 250 members from over 60 schools across Los Angeles.

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

Envision a future where the oceans are full of biodiversity, and sustainable energy is powering your car. This utopian vision is ambitious, but it’s possible. It’s this vision that we are fighting for– we see indisputable scientific conclusions, drawn from field work initially seeded by $1000 and an incredibly informative summit, taken to the floor of the California legislature, where no state congress person can refute that kelp is a keystone to a sustainable earth. We have begun to make partnerships with experts and over summer we plan on harvesting kelp and generating biofuels in a lab. In the end, we plan on producing a paper and making a case to legislators about the kelp industry, backed by the research and conclusions we draw.

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

In 2019, Julian co-led a strike in Pasadena City Hall with 500+ students and concerned members of the public. The protests resulted in 3 city council candidates and 1 mayoral candidate signing onto the Green New Deal. In 2020, Claire was a fellow on a successful city council election of Nithya Raman who ran on a platform of climate policy for Los Angeles. We've built Sunrise LA Youth into a fully functioning organization with 250 active members working on local environmental justice initiatives.

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

The commitment we have for healthy oceans and cleaner, more sustainable energy, shared with many changemakers. Luckily, in this digital age, partnerships can be made effortlessly and quickly. We will reach out to changemakers, scientists, environmentalists, entrepreneurs and other creative thinkers to propose reviving current economic downturn while innovating with kelp. With their help we will advocate for public investment in creating jobs that will revive the economy and help the ocean

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

Climate change is one of the greatest global crises our generation will face, and unless action is taken, we’re going to feel the greatest effects. While we’ve found our peers may be interested, they are reluctant to commit to action. So when push comes to shove, and we’re trying to pull in someone who’s planted on the fence, we share our stories to connect on core values, common fears, and shared hope in the future. Passion is contagious, and it is perhaps the greatest tool in ensuring buy-in.

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?

  • Recommended by others

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

RJ Sakai the social innovation director at Sequoyah High School

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