PLEASANTON — Hari Rallapalli was concerned when he learned that Bisphenol A, a commonly used compound in plastics and other products, could be ingested by his nephew through baby bottles heated in a microwave.
The 17-year-old junior at Amador Valley High wanted to create a way for members of the public, who may not have access to high-tech testing technologies, to find out for themselves how much of the chemical to which they might be exposed.
So with the goal of developing a testing method that would cost less than $500, he created a science experiment that won him a full scholarship to a private university, additional tuition money and cash. In total, his awards are worth about $175,000. What's more, he got his aunt to change her habits.
"I actually got her to stop using polycarbonate bottles," Rallapalli said.
Rallapalli's project, titled "Fast Low-Cost Bisphenol-A (BPA) Detector," placed third in physics at the 60th Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. The event, one of the premiere science fairs, was held in mid-May in Reno. Prizes included college scholarships, tuition grants, internships and field trips, according to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which is involved. The competition attracted 1,500 students from 56 countries with more than 1,200 projects.
Rallapalli received a full scholarship worth $150,000 from Philadelphia's Drexel University, a $25,000 scholarship to the college of his choice from Agilent Technologies and $1,000 cash.
Rallapalli got into the competition by being one of two senior sweepstakes winners from the Lab-sponsored Tri-Valley Science and Engineering Fair in March. His winnings at Intel represent the largest amount of money a student has won in the competition, though there have been students who placed higher at the event, according to the Lab.
In simple terms, the project involved directing ultraviolet light through a container with distilled water and then measuring it with another device.
The readings were compared to a control. Containers tested included plastic and glass bottles, drinking fountains and a metal can of beans, because canned food linings can contain the compound.
Rallapalli, whose father is a Web database architect and whose mother is a special education teacher, said science is a passion for his family.
Two years ago, he and his father helped start the Pleasanton Science League, which also draws students from outside the city. Additionally, his sister, Pleasanton Middle School eighth-grader Sumana Rallapalli, was one of two junior sweepstakes winners from the Tri-Valley science fair, earning a trip to the California State Science Fair.
She won honorable mention in the materials science category for her project, "Tribo-Light AM: Continuous Triboluminescence and Radio Emission from a Safe, Portable, Low-Cost Generator."
"I guess it runs in the family," Hari said.
He said he is undecided on Drexel, saying he also has $10,000 in scholarship money from last year's Intel fair. Rallapalli, who also runs track and plays tennis, guitar and piano, said he likes science for its own sake — not for the money.
"I love what I do," he said.
Reach Eric Louie at 925-847-2123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.