Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Houston, we have a problem.
That’s what Erik Yost thought. The President and founder of STELLAR, a platform for Grand Canyon University’s students to design, test, build and launch research projects to the International Space Station, thought he might have filled out the forms wrong.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness. This isn’t good. Maybe we messed up. Did I submit the total thing wrong?’” Yost said of STELLAR’s submission to the recent annual conference of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research.
Yost had flown to Baltimore for the conference with STELLAR co-founder and Vice President Nathan Olsen and the team’s lead mechanical engineer, Noah Krepela. They were expecting to join their fellow college undergraduates in the poster presentation competition, where they were slated to present their team’s research in microbial fuel cell technology.
Microbial fuel cells are a new form of bioelectrochemical technology that aims to produce electricity by using electrons derived from biochemical reactions.
For STELLAR – it stands for Space Technology and Engineering for Launching Life Application Research – that means harnessing the power of an electricity-producing bacteria called shewanella. The team’s microbial fuel cell takes the energy released by the bacteria when it breaks down waste and turns it into electricity.
The team has created and executed multiple experiments to improve power efficiency in its microbial fuel cell.
STELLAR submitted an abstract about its work for entry into the undergraduate poster presentation portion of the conference. But Yost got an email back saying the group had been accepted into a concurrent oral technical presentation.
On the day of the event, he walked to the competition area and asked the women at the check-in desk, “‘Hey, I’m an undergraduate. Am I supposed to be here?’”
They told him that STELLAR was listed as giving an oral presentation.
“I’m, like, ‘So what does this mean?’” thought Yost, who is studying business management, biological studies and Christian studies at GCU.
Turns out, it meant something big. The session chair had handpicked STELLAR’s project for a presentation upgrade.
“We got pulled out of the (poster) competition and put in the professional realm,” Yost said. “We were giving our presentation alongside many other notable scientists. ... This is a huge honor and, basically, unheard of.
“My favorite part was presenting and saying we were undergraduate researchers and hearing, ‘Oh my goodness! They’re undergrads!’ Our nametags had Grand Canyon University. People are taking pictures of it to remember us.”
STELLAR’s performance at the conference is significant.
The team placed third with its microbial fuel cell poster presentation in October at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Performing exceptionally there, at the ASGSR and then at one more competition means the group likely will be invited to the International Astronautical Congress in Paris in fall 2022.
That would be a major accomplishment for STELLAR, which Yost and Olsen formed in their residence hall suite just a year ago, after Yost, who had been part of his high school’s International Space Station team, asked Olsen one night, “Hey! You want to send something into space?”
The team, which now includes more than a dozen members, also will send its microbial fuel cell to the International Space Station in May.
Besides getting a conference upgrade to the professional technical category at the ASGSR, Yost, Olsen and Krepela met Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran, Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. He named the bacteria that has been powering their microbial fuel cells, “which is crazy,” Yost said.
“The most exciting part of the conference for me was meeting a lot of the top influential people in the space industry and being able to talk with those who literally shaped our vision of space travel and research,” said Olsen, a mechanical engineering technology major. “Being able to present alongside other researchers instead of a poster competition was an amazing eye-opener for our team in that people are recognizing the impact and importance of our research and also the very high level of work that comes out of the STELLAR program.”
The trio was especially excited at the ASGSR conference to share what is at the heart of what STELLAR does. The goal is not just to send projects into space; it's also to do research that will help the people they serve in their missionary work. A microbial fuel cell not only could help astronauts in their space travel but could help power villages in developing countries.
“Overall, it was a really good experience to network and to effectively communicate our humanitarian focus for our project,” Yost said. “And it was super exciting to be a GCU student and be able to showcase our research on such a professional and large platform. It was just a fun experience.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.