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His finalist year: 1978
His finalist project: Testing a process to remove sulfur belched from power plants
What led to the project: Growing up in Saint Joseph, Mo., in the 1970s, Robert Duncan was "very fortunate to have supportive, very good teachers," he says. For instance, the science department at Central High School, which he attended, saved up to purchase a gas chromatograph, used to separate and analyze the elements of gases. His chemistry teacher, Bill McLaughlin, helped him brainstorm projects that could use this technology.
They decided to study ways of removing sulfur from smokestack gases, such as the emissions which would come out of the stacks of coal power plants. It turned out that when you passed the stack gases over a column of half-calcined (heated) dolomite, the reaction could help remove the sulfur. Duncan entered his project, "An Investigation Concerning the Use of Half-Calcined Dolomite as an Absorber of Pollutant Hydrogen Sulfide Gas Liberated During Coal Gasification," in the 1978 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and was named a finalist.
The effect on his career: Duncan went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied physics, ultimately earning his PhD in the topic from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1988. After graduation he joined the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories and, in 1996, the faculty of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (U.N.M.). He also did some visiting professor stints at the California Institute of Technology along the way.
All the while, he studied low-temperature physics, and specifically what happens as helium transitions at low temperatures from a liquid to a special quantum state known as a "superfluid," because it flows with no friction.
One of the major thrusts of his research has been studying how this transition would work in space. When you're on Earth, he explains, the pressure gradient due to gravity affects the transition; in space you can observe this phenomenon unmasked by gravitational effects. However, before the experiments could be conducted in orbit, and to Duncan's great disappointment, NASA canceled its program in 2004 in favor of planning a mission to Mars. "There will be questions in physics we'll never answer otherwise," he rues.