FRCC students head to final round of national innovation challenge

Luke Zarzecki
Posted 5/19/22

Cristian Madrazo used to work in construction. 

“I'm just 22 years old, I lived in Colorado my whole life, so just that average Colorado construction worker,” he said.

Now, he …

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FRCC students head to final round of national innovation challenge


Cristian Madrazo used to work in construction. 

“I'm just 22 years old," Madrazo said. "I lived in Colorado my whole life, so just that average Colorado construction worker."

Now, he attends Front Range Community College and is headed to Washington, D.C., as a finalist for a national innovation challenge that will be held in June. 

The Community College Innovation Challenge, led by the American Association of Community Colleges, has challenged students for the past six years to apply science, technology, engineering and mathematics to find new solutions to real-world problems. 

Madrazo attends FRCC and is working toward an associates degree in general engineering for transfer to a four-year college. Prior to that degree, he earned an associates in business. 

According to Professor Diane Rhodes, Madrazo's academic pursuits make him great candidate for the contest, because once the teams come up with a design — the engineering part  — they then have to market it to stakeholders to take the idea further — the business part. 

Madrazo learned about the challenge through one of his classes taught by Rhodes. In that class, he and Xavier Cotton — the other member of the team — completed a project aimed at cleaning oil spills with two other classmates from California. 

Madrazo and Cotton continued with the project outside of class and ended up as one of 12 finalist teams from across the country.

Oily hair 

The project is called The Orca Oil-Separating and Bio-Filtration Vessel and it separates oil from water and then filters that water. 

“It's based on how whales eat,” Rhodes said. “It not only cleans the oceans of the oil spills, which are millions of gallons per year, but the process of cleaning also filters (the water).” 

She said when oil is separated from water, the water still isn’t fully clean. That’s where the biofiltration part comes in so the water going back into the ocean is healthy. 

The team’s prototype first looked like a giant boat that would trudge through oil spills to separate the oil and filter the water. 

Madrazo said experts saw the prototype as unsafe, so the students adapted the design into a floating drone controlled by humans onshore to minimize the risk to operators. 

The floating drone is 10-feet by 10 feet with ropes that circle the oil to keep it from spreading. Then the drone slowly reels in the rope and skims off the oil from the water. 

“It's a drum made of oleophilic material, and it spins on the surface of the water that we just took in and that material absorbs the oil,” he said. 

Once the majority of the oil is removed, the water is passed through a hair filter that soaks up the rest of the oil. Madrazo said the team discovered that hair works as a great oil absorber. 

Any kind of hair can be used, though he said it’s primarily animal hair. For their small prototype, Cotton used his own hair. 

“The great thing about hair is that it absorbs, you know, multiple times its weight in oil,” he said. 

Madrazo could not specify how many times, but he said the prototype used a few grams of hair and the actual device will need tons. 

Once the hair is used to soak up the oil, the group plans to let the hair and the oil decompose. Or, they will put it in a landfill, which he sees as not a perfect option, but much better than oil in the ocean.


Madrazo said the team came up with the design by going through the engineering design process. 

“That process is if you know your problem, you brainstorm all kinds of ideas, no matter how realistic or unrealistic they are,” he said. “Then you get to a certain step in the process, where you cancel out ideas that are just not realistic, and then you boil it down to either one really good idea that you had in the process or a combination of all the different ideas.” 

Colorado is not near the ocean, so the premise of the project came from his classmates in California. Now, he hopes the design will change the world. 

“We were hoping that this inspires some large company to use hair or to use our idea in some way that might be beneficial to society,” Madrazo said. 


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