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Proctor team's diaper-recycling concept wins top honors

The Proctor High School team competing in an international science innovation contest took home first place in their division over the weekend with their concept to recycle disposable diapers.

The students - Johnny Gales, Zach Coughlin, Daniel Roach, Alyssa Hagemeyer, Ben Nicolson and their adviser, Allison Nicolson - were at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for the annual Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge.

On Friday the team presented in front of scientists, corporate leaders, engineers and dozens of their peers to describe their process in a six-minute "PowerPitch" presentation that includes a live stand-up pitch and a video. They won first place in the Environment and Energy category, beating out four other finalists and two more wild-card teams thrown in at the last minute.

"They made a great presentation. They honestly sold the idea because they believed in it,'' Allison Nicolson said. "They have passion for this."

The team received a huge trophy at Saturday afternoon's award ceremony. But the real prize is a chance to work with the Wisconsin Innovation Service Center, a part of the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, to develop their concept into a workable project.

The Proctor team also will get help to develop a patent, and the Conrad Foundation also threw in a $5,000 scholarship to help get the diaper idea off the ground.

The Proctor team - they call themselves Students Striving for Eco Friendly Engineering, SSEFE - developed a potential process to get diapers from consumers' homes to the garbage truck tipping floor and then into a system to disinfect and deconstruct diapers into their basic elements; plastic, wood pulp and sodium polyacrylate, the basis of the super-absorbent beads.

The problem they hope to solve is huge. More than 90 percent of U.S. babies are clad in disposable diapers that total more than 20 billion each year. That's enough diapers to stretch to the moon and back several times, and they never break down in landfills.

The science innovation event was founded in 2008 in honor of Apollo 12 astronaut, innovator and entrepreneur Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., the third man to walk on the moon in November 1969. Conrad died in a 1999 motorcycle accident. But the Conrad contest continues his legacy, aimed at bringing the best and brightest students together to compete in one of four categories: aerospace and aviation; cyber technology; energy and environment; and health and nutrition.

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