Tyler Lyon, Daniel Winegar and Chad Thornley were overtired and giddy as they tackled a science fair project. Their idea: Eliminate the use of Freon in automobile air-conditioning systems by relying on the Peltier effect - of course.
"We aren't planning our lives around making air conditioners," Lyon explained. "We wanted to do something to help the environment and the economy."
But what began as a Riverton High School physics class assignment nearly two years ago has morphed into an award-winning, internationally recognized invention.
Lyon and Winegar, two recent Riverton graduates - Thornley graduated in 2004 and is now on an LDS Church mission - won the first-ever Ricoh Sustainable Development Award in May when they competed against 1,400 other worldwide invitation-only entries at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix.
Aside from the $50,000 college scholarship the two 18-year-olds will share, the budding engineers are jetting off to Japan today for a 10-day visit on Ricoh's dime. The office equipment and electronics company, a leader in the field of sustainable development, has invited the Utahns to attend the World Expo, address Ricoh executives, tour their research and development lab, meet with government officials - including the Minister of the Environment - and sit down with Tokyo University professors.
"It's been a total, unbelievable dream," marveled Tyler's mom, Diane Lyon, last week. "They're just typical boys. But when someone believes in you, amazing things can happen."
Physics teacher Kari Lewis, who recently left Riverton High, said trusting in Lyon and Winegar was easy.
"They came up with this idea . . . and they made it work," she said. "It's a perfect solution to an incredible problem."
Today, the young inventors say, U.S. drivers use about 7.9 billion gallons of fuel each year to run their air-conditioners, which draw power from the engine. By adopting their contraption - which taps into the electrical system, using fans to blow hot air through five Peltier chips and then releasing cold air - they say the country stands to save 3.9 billion gallons of fuel annually, or about $10 billion based on current gas prices.
Furthermore, the product would free drivers from Freon - which despite improvements, remains an ozone-depleting chemical in current air-conditioners. The Peltier chips, which they purchased on eBay for $9.99 each, have a life span of 20 to 30 years and an unfaltering cooling capacity. And like every component in the Space Beast, which can be minimized in size to about 2 inches in width, the chips are recyclable.
As a young boy, Lyon's parents said he tore apart and reassembled household electronics - CD players, clocks, an old stereo that didn't work until he fixed it. And while Daniel's mom, LouAnn Winegar, was grateful her son was "not a take-apart-person," she said her boy's love for science, engineering and computers has been consistent.
"It's nice to see all of his years of interest and hard work being recognized," she said.
The two-year process of fine-tuning, however, was not without its glitches. When the teens were trying to convert a blow-dryer fan from AC to DC power, a miswiring gave Lyon a doozy of a shock - "a low-enough amp that it couldn't really stop my heart," he said. And there was that computer power strip that they managed to ignite, before throwing it outside in the snow, only to retrieve it two days later to recycle its parts.
Despite the setbacks, and bouts of procrastination, the teens didn't give up. When they weren't playing computer games, skiing, snowboarding or, in Lyon's case, rock-climbing, they buckled down, sometimes working through the night. Their focus nearly cost them graduation - they had to scramble to make up work in other classes - but they accomplished what others couldn't.
After they had already begun their work, Lyon and Winegar learned about a 1964 General Motors analysis that explored the idea before the car company concluded it wasn't possible.
Going in with open minds, however, the teens were not deterred and pulled off what GM rejected.
"Nobody told them it couldn't be done," Robert Lyon, Tyler's dad, said.
The first time he felt a cold gust of air successfully come through the system, Winegar said he remembers saying: "We may actually have something here."
Looks like they do. A Salt Lake City attorney is working to secure a patent. The Environmental Protection Agency called to express interest Tuesday morning. And though repeated attempts to communicate with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. have gone unanswered, high officials in Japan - an ocean away - are awaiting the arrival of Riverton's young inventors.