Engineering Graduate Student Wins Lemelson-MIT Student Prize

Ph.D. student Alexander Richter wins prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for his work in agricultural pest control.

Alexander Richter, a graduate student in North Carolina State University’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has won a $15,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for work to improve agricultural pest control that could strengthen the global food supply.

The Lemelson-MIT National Collegiate Student Prize Competition is a nationwide search for the most inventive team of undergraduate and individual graduate students. The Lemelson-MIT Program today announced awards of $65,000 in prizes for inventions in the healthcare, transportation, food and agriculture, and consumer device spaces.

Richter, a Ph.D. candidate working with Dr. Orlin Velev, INVISTA Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, won in the “Eat It” category for technology-based inventions that can improve food and agriculture.

Agricultural productivity must rise dramatically if the world is to grow enough food to meet the needs of the projected population in 2050. Despite the vast resources spent each year on crop protection applications, crop damage is estimated at 37 percent due to plant pests and diseases occurring to a large extent because of loss of pesticide efficacy related to pesticide clumping, drying and run off. Furthermore, today’s toxic and expensive pest control solutions can impact nature’s ecological balance and could pose untold long-term risks.

Richter is developing a novel approach to deliver antimicrobial and antifungal pest control agents via lignin-core environmentally benign nanoparticles. These biodegradable particles could be the basis for reduced risk conventional pesticide products that have the potential to reduce the amount of chemicals used in plant protection by as much as 90 percent, save farmers more than 25 percent on pest-control initiatives and, in a world facing looming food shortages, help increase crop yields for more and better food.

The technology is being developed by BENANOVA Inc., a startup company founded by Richter and Velev that is based in the Technology Incubator on NC State’s Centennial Campus. Richter is the first student from a university in North Carolina to win a Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.

The winners of this year’s competition were selected from a diverse and highly competitive applicant pool of students from 28 colleges and universities across the country. Each winning team of undergraduates received $10,000 and each graduate student winner received $15,000.

“This year’s Lemelson-MIT National Collegiate Student Prize Competition winners are inventors who recognize pressing issues and are pioneering concepts that will translate into impactful solutions,” said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “Their work is as remarkable as their passion to mentor and inspire creative thinking among youth.”

The Lemelson-MIT Program celebrates outstanding inventors and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention. Founded by Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1994, the program is funded by The Lemelson Foundation and administered by the College of Engineering at MIT.

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