Outside of the classroom at St. Matthew School, fourth grade student Liam Mooney can be found swimming, reading, participating in the Vanderbilt University SAVY program, researching science, and thinking about business ideas.
As part of his most recent endeavor, the 9-year-old can also be found preparing for and competing against technology and engineering industry experts with doctorates, in the Graphene Composites Design Competition.
The competition is in its first year and is hosted by the National Graphene Association. It centers around the application of graphene, a material that consists of a single, thin layer of graphite. It was isolated by two professors at the University of Manchester in 2004. It is flexible, transparent, highly conductive, and more than 100 times as strong as steel. These qualities have made its applications limitless and created a frenzy to commercialize it.
Liam’s idea is to use graphene to create durable gloves compatible with electronic devices for workers and athletes. This was one of many ideas he had about using the material prior to the competition.
“I came up with it while brainstorming ideas and I found out that gloves were not electrically conductive,” he said. “Electronic devices use conductivity to work with touch screens. Graphene would solve the problem.”
He presented his idea as part of phase one of the competition, on the second day of the Graphene Innovation and Research Conference on Nov. 20 in Jackson, Mississippi. Liam was one of five finalists to participate and gave a three-minute pitch followed by a question and answer session. He placed second and was awarded $4,000. The winner was a doctorate holder from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“We’re very proud of Liam and we love that he’s pursuing his interests,” said Liam’s mom, Kate Mooney. “We think it took a lot of courage to enter a competition with adults. We know he was a little nervous, but when it came down to presenting his idea, he did a really great job.”
On the first day of the conference, Liam met the founder and chief executive officer of the National Graphene Association, Dr. Ed Meek, Ph.D.; Dr. Ahmed Al-Ostaz, Ph.D., a researcher that developed a graphene-based product used by NASA; Ole Miss Chancellor, Dr. Glenn Boyce, Ph.D.; and some of his competitors.
Phase two of the competition will involve creating a working prototype. Liam says that creating the prototype while in elementary school will be a challenge along with the lack of needed equipment. However, a Vanderbilt professor and researchers from the Mississippi Polymer Institute have volunteered to help.
The Mooneys have not received additional details about phase two, but expect it to take place sometime in the spring.
Liam was first introduced to the material when he looked up the strongest material in the world. When he found graphene, he said he was “immediately interested.” He later met National Graphene Association Executive Director, Dr. Zina Jarrahi Cinker, Ph.D., for lunch to discuss his ideas. Cinker is a visiting scientist at the Vanderbilt Department of Physics and Astronomy and encouraged him to apply. When he did and got news that he was a finalist, he said he “freaked out and was really excited.”
His success has not been a surprise to those who know him at St. Matthew.
“We are so proud of Liam! It is not a surprise that he is competing against individuals who are engineers and professors,” said Principal Tim Forbes. “When he is passionate about a topic, not much will deter him. I believe he represents and demonstrates the best of our community.”
Video of his pitch at the conference was shown to his homeroom class, who gave him a standing ovation after watching.
“They were so excited for Liam,” said Mooney’s science and homeroom teacher, Kristina Tons. “It touched my heart, the joy and pride they showed for their friend.”
Tons added that Liam always impresses her.
“Liam introduced ME to graphene, which led me to research more about it. It has been wonderful having a student teach me and fun to learn something new,” she said.
According to mom Kate, Liam has talked about combining science and technology to build a business from products like lightsabers from magnetic waves and hypersonic engines since he was 4 years old. He hopes to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the future and make that a reality.
“I’m proud of myself for getting into the competition as a kid. I feel like it was kind of a big deal to beat the other professionals and Ph.D.s,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy going forward, but I’ll give it my best try and try to be successful.”