Most 17-year-olds dread the sight of eggplants. But not Shannon Lee, a second-year student at Singapore’s National Junior College, who won first prize in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair’s (ISEF) Energy & Transportation category in May 2014.

Her winning idea is an activated carbon catalyst made out of carbonised Chinese eggplant, which can be used as a replacement for platinum carbon in existing zinc-air batteries.

“It’s as efficient as the commercially available compound, and its stability far exceeds that of platinum carbon,” she told e27 before scurrying off for dance practice in school. “Its performance is comparable, but I would like to further improve it if possible.”

Her encounter with eggplants was rather serendipitous. Previously, while being placed at Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) for a work attachment, Lee was tasked to find a suitable carbon-supported catalyst for zinc air batteries. She then chanced upon eggplants, which she said has an “amazing (physical) structure”. Later, she dehydrated the eggplant, conducted an electric chemical experiment and found the vegetable conducive as it has a high surface area. After she left A*STAR, she continued her experiment in school.

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“We thought of various other vegetables. Apple was also another fruit that I tested. But apple’s performance wasn’t as good as eggplant,” she said.

Lee also won one of two Intel Foundation Young Scientist awards, and went home with US$50,000 in funding for her project. She recounted her experience at the US-based competition, “You meet a lot of people. You see how brilliant and passionate they are about science, and it rubs off you as well.”

The unassuming scientist said, “To be honest, when I first took part at the Singapore affiliated fair, I didn’t even think I would get to ISEF.”

Going forward, she intends to use the funds to perform more rigorous testing, and head towards commercialising the catalyst.

It is, of course, not an understatement to say that commercialisation of this electro-catalyst will bring great benefits to society. For example, electric cars can now run on a readily available material, which costs and weighs less than existing products. “It can travel (further) for sure,” she said.

However, her plans to commercialise the electro-catalyst will just have to wait. “Right now, I have my (GCE) ‘A’ Levels,” concluded Lee, who will be sitting for the examination later this year.