One man’s trash may be another man’s … cooking fuel? So says a team of student innovators who’ve invented a mini-press that turns garbage into a firewood alternative.

High school students at Pinelands Eco Regional High School in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, designed an inexpensive wooden press that can squeeze biowaste, such as banana peels and peanut shells, into charcoal-size briquettes for cooking.

The 2.5-foot-wide (0.7-meter-wide) press, targeted toward people in developing countries, addresses two major environmental problems: The carbon dioxide and other pollution caused by burning wood, and deforestation, which is occurring at a rate of about 46 to 58 million square miles (119 to 150 square kilometers) of forest each year—equivalent to 36 football fields a minute, according to WWF. (Related: “Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty.”)

Not only has the invention earned the student team an award from Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge, but it also caught the attention of the President of the United States.

On April 22, Jon Kubricki and Bridget Zarych presented their project to the President at the White House Science Fair, which included a hundred students from more than 40 states. The annual fair—which recognizes the talents of the United States’ future scientists, engineers, and inventors—featured 30 student teams who displayed their projects on the White House’s East Lawn.

The President visited the exhibits, which ranged from a faster test to detect pancreatic cancer to a wind turbine small enough to be installed on a roof.

Afterward, during remarks to the press, Obama said, “And let me just start by saying, in my official capacity as President: This stuff is really cool.”

He then praised Kubricki and Zarych for their invention—joking that he wasn’t creating new technologies at their age—as well as for working to solve environmental problems such as deforestation. (Read the President’s full remarks.)

Making the Mini-Press

The Pinelands team—which also includes Mikaela Crowley and Christopher Naples—came up with the mini-press in eighth grade after studying deforestation and thinking about what it’d be like to lose their school’s namesake, the New Jersey Pinelands—a forested expanse of more than a million acres in the eastern U.S. (Watch videos about forests in danger.)

First, the team identified the main agricultural exports of the ten countries where forests are disappearing the fastest, such as Ghana and the Philippines. People in these countries, they reasoned, could use leftover products from these exports in their mini-presses. For instance, Ghana sells a lot of peanut shells, and the Philippines sells a lot of banana and sugar cane.

“Around here we have a lot of pine needles, so we used pine needles to test our briquettes,” Zarych said in a phone interview.

After successfully producing the briquettes—which generally burn around 20 minutes—”we did an [emissions] test compared to wood, and we found that the cooking briquettes produced less CO2 and carbon monoxide than wood burning,” she said. (Also see “High Fuel Costs Spark Increased Use of Wood for Home Heating.”)

The team used sawdust or newspaper to as a binding agent to keep the briquettes to stay intact. In developing countries, people could use a starchy substance like guava root extract.

Mini-Press in the Real World

Meeting the President may be a high mark, but the student innovators aren’t resting on their laurels. They hope to pilot test the easy-to-ship mini-press abroad—they’ve already given one to a family in Guatemala, Kubricki’s native country.

“Our main goal is to try to produce more presses and send them to orphanages,” said Kubricki, who’s adopted.

The kids also took a moment to reflect on their visit to Washington.

“The White House was a very good experience … it was a high honor,” Kubricki said. Added Zarych: “That was a really fun day. I got to meet a whole bunch of other kids from all over the country.

“And we got to meet the President—that was the best experience ever.”


  1. Mary
    December 26, 2013, 3:55 pm

    Job well done!

  2. Na'Ja C.
    New Jersey
    December 26, 2013, 3:45 pm

    Congrats, Jon & GREAT job to you and your teammates!! You really shine and what an honor to be @ the White House representing Pinelands!!!!

  3. Regina
    New Jersey
    December 9, 2013, 1:39 pm

    I am so proud of the innovative work of these students. As a teacher, this is what we dream of for our students, to use their unique gifts and abilities, their imagination and intellect, and their hard work and determination to make this world a better place. Well done! I am especially moved by the way Jon Kubricki is using his life experience to reach out to others to positively impact their lives. You young innovators are a ray of hope!

  4. Michael Yates
    New Jersey
    December 9, 2013, 11:55 am

    Congratulations Team Pinelands!! I wish you much success in the future. Keep up the good work!

  5. Rachel Vitale
    New Jersey
    August 7, 2013, 1:34 pm

    Great job. Pinelands you make me proud.

  6. Linda
    Sebastopol, CA
    July 12, 2013, 9:41 am

    Inspiring and I wish your team continued success in the future. You are making an important contribution to improving lives of all people on this planet as we are all effected by deforestation and it’s related global impact.

  7. Victoria Wang
    Livingston, NJ
    July 11, 2013, 11:28 am

    This is really cool, it sounds like it could really help the environment.

  8. JIm Dunning
    Tucson, AZ
    June 29, 2013, 4:48 pm

    They came from public schools, not charter or christian. Hmmm …

  9. Elizabeth
    June 28, 2013, 12:47 pm

    It’s THIS kind of innovation from today’s youth that I want to see featured on the news. I positively beamed by the end of this article.

  10. John Steele
    Pinelands Regional Junior High School
    June 28, 2013, 12:10 pm

    Way to go team! We’re proud of you all.

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