Fixing oil spills and inventing biodegradable plastic: meet Year 12 student Angelina Arora

By Angela Heathcote 8 April 2019
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What were you doing in Year 12?

“I’VE WANTED TO do a TedX talk for a long time but I never thought it would happen so early,” says Angelina Arora, a 17-year-old science extraordinaire. “I thought that it would happen after I did my PhD or something.”

Angelina, fresh off the stage from discussing the biodegradable plastic she invented and how algae may be the answer to devastating oil spills, is half way through her HSC year, but is already planning the next decade of her life.

When Angelina was in Year 9, she parachuted into public life as the young scientist reshaping plastic waste, and it all started at her local fish and chip shop.

“For a school science project, I made a plastic bag out of cornstarch, but it didn’t work because it was soluble in water which would mean we’d have our groceries end up on the floor and it would also mean taking away precious food sources,” Angelina recalls.

“That’s when I was at the fish and chip shop and I was getting prawns for dinner and I noticed  that the prawn shells looked like plastic. I went back to the lab and thought about what exactly made them look like that.”

Angelina then extracted a carbohydrate called chitin found in the shell and chemically converted it into chitosan, then she combined it with fibroin, found in spider web, for consistency. What she’d invented was a plastic that decomposed 1.5 million times faster than conventional plastics.

“A lot of people didn’t think it would work, including myself in the beginning. I was also convinced that even if it would work, it would have been done before, right?”

Angelina’s invention won her a BHP Science and Engineering Award and she was the keynote speaker at Woolworths’ plastic bag ban launch.

How exactly Angelina got to this point, she puts down to initiative. “I emailed all these professors in my first few years of high school, but no one replied,” she says. “Eventually, though, a few people gave me chance.”

Since then, every morning Angelina wakes up early to exercise, goes to the lab, then school and then back to the lab until late at night where she is continuing to develop her plastic, but for medical purposes such as wound dressings that make blood clot more rapidly.

While many may think that Angelina would go into the field of material engineering, she actually has her eyes set on a medical degree.

Victor Chang is my ultimate role model,’ she says.”He was fearless. I want to be doctor in medical research.”

Angelina also names Malala Yousafzai as someone she looks up to. “The way she’s fearless about getting her ideas out there is amazing. She doesn’t take no for an answer and she doesn’t look to other people for validation, she does what she feels is right.

“At my age, a lot of people say ‘oh, what can you do?’ And it’s hard to get your ideas out there and be taken seriously. Like Malala, I’d like to think that I don’t take no for an answer.”

Angelina describes her second -biggest invention, which she’s still working on, as a “happy accident”. “I was working on the photosynthetic efficiency of algae under certain conditions when the person next to me spilt oil on the bench.

“In trying to help this person clean it up, I spilt the algae I’d been working on and it almost immediately soaked all the oil up. That’s when I started to wonder whether algae could play a part in cleaning up oil spills efficiently and inexpensively.”

Angelina encourages her peers to be determined in what ever field they choose to work in. “If you want something bad enough and you work for it, it just happens,” she says.