ONE TO WATCH
By ANDREW MCGINN
Crawford Petterson was enjoying his breakfast when a stranger asked to join him.
The woman seemed nice enough — she had an accent, but on this October morning in Des Moines, Petterson explained, everyone seemed to have an accent.
For a good 20 minutes, the Greene County High School senior chatted away with her, oblivious that he was actually dining with the vice president of Peru.
“That was something else,” Petterson, 18, recalled recently with a chuckle. “Embarrassing when I realized who I was talking to.”
Before long, though, they were joined by a former president of Nigeria, who had overheard Petterson say something about Africa.
And not long after that, Antonio Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations and a former prime minister of Portugal, crashed their table as well.
“I am not qualified for this,” Petterson kept thinking.
Oh, but he was.
Not only had Petterson been selected to participate in the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute, where he presented research on the potential of vertical windmills made of scrap metal to electrify homes in war-ravaged Liberia, but he had driven himself down to Des Moines in a 13-year-old Ford F-150 powered by a hydrogen fuel cell of his own making.
“I’ve made a bunch,” Petterson said matter-of-factly.
If every high school has at least one Crawford Petterson in it, Earth should be in good hands.
They come to the state capital each fall in conjunction with World Food Prize ceremonies to discuss their ideas for making the world a better place. About 200 in all are chosen annually to present research at the Global Youth Institute from high schools around the world.
The World Food Prize was the brainchild of plant pathologist and Nobel laureate Norman E. Borlaug, a legendary Iowan who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his efforts to eradicate hunger through the development of a robust strain of wheat known as dwarf wheat.
Nourished people, it would seem, tend to be peaceful people.
Created in 1986, Borlaug envisioned the World Food Prize, which comes with an award of $250,000, as the equivalent of a Nobel prize for food and agriculture.
President of the World Food Prize Foundation is another legendary Iowan, Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, a former diplomat credited with helping to break the back of Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge movement through rural development.
Presentation of the prize in Des Moines coincides with an international symposium, a lecture series and other events, including the Global Youth Institute.
October’s institute was attended by students from all across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, China, Netherlands, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Uganda.
“I didn’t take Global Youth Institute literally,” Petterson confessed.
As he explained, the first person he met asked where he was from.
“Greene County,” Petterson answered.
“Greene County where?” they asked.
Suddenly, the scope of the event dawned on him.
Some people never figure out that we each inhabit a speck, and that all of the specks combine to make up the same flying rock.
Petterson, on the other hand, may have the widest worldview of anyone living in Greene County right now, regardless of age.
Petterson presented and defended his research on vertical windmills to a U.N. expert on global food security — a British doctor who also coordinated the U.N. response in 2014 to the ebola epidemic in Africa — and came out on the other side a changed citizen of Earth.
“It makes me more passionate to change things,” Petterson said.
That doctor, David Nabarro, was in Des Moines last fall to share the World Food Prize with fellow U.K. scientist Dr. Lawrence Haddad, whose research put child nutrition at the front of the global food security agenda.
Together, they’re credited with leadership and advocacy that reduced the number of stunted children around the world.
Later on, Nabarro selected Petterson to present in front of the entire Global Youth Institute.
Petterson’s unique approach to a class assignment his freshman year had hinted at his potential, according to Katie Akers, agriculture education teacher at Greene County High School.
“I saw a spark in Crawford,” Akers said.
He and a classmate had been tasked with doing a presentation on the use of biotechnology to advance the aquaculture industry, and nailed it.
“As he was presenting,” Akers said, “it was like he came to life in a new way I’d never seen before.”
She thought of him to participate in the Global Youth Institute at the state level. But participation is purely extracurricular — participants don’t even get extra credit for the undertaking.
Petterson was willing to give it a shot.
“If it’s not graded,” he thought, “I can’t get a bad grade.”
“There were only positives in trying,” he said.
Petterson has participated annually ever since, writing a research paper each year addressing a problem somewhere in the world affecting food security.
“He chose to run with it,” Akers said.
Last fall marked his first acceptance to the Global Youth Institute — incredible for a paper written the morning it was due.
In trying to find yet another problem to solve, Petterson remembered seeing an article about Liberia’s lack of a public power grid after 14 years of civil war.
It’s true: 81.3 percent of people in that West African nation of 4.73 million have no access to electricity. Those with electricity get their power from a hodgepodge of sources, including vehicle batteries.
Petterson, who plans to study windmill technology in college, theorized that personalized, two-blade windmills made of recycled scrap metal and regular building materials could power homes across Liberia.
Unlike horizontal windmills that tower 300 feet over rural Iowa, the components of Petterson’s vertical windmill would all be easily within reach.
Petterson actually knows a thing or two about scrap metal.
“Growing up in a junkyard,” he said, “you find alternators everywhere.”
His family for years owned a salvage yard near Omaha that served as his playground on breaks from school in Jefferson.
“Easter egg hunts were amazing,” he raved.
But Petterson also learned to use his hands early on.
“I’ve always had a fear of working in an office,” he said. “I’d rather be standing up covered in grease.”
By 10, he could change a car’s oil and tires. At 13, he could swap out an engine.
At that rate, it should probably come as no surprise that Petterson’s pickup truck was being powered for a time last fall by his own hydrogen fuel cell.
Hydrogen is Petterson’s pet project, and he’s still a little irked that his sophomore-year research paper — on a way to cut pollution from cargo ships on the ocean by powering them with hydrogen — was passed over for the Global Youth Institute.
Unlike an internal combustion engine that burns fuel, creating tailpipe pollution in the process, a hydrogen fuel cell produces only water and some heat as it generates electricity through a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen.
More and more vehicles are emerging with hydrogen fuel cells, but the technology is still largely misunderstood.
It would seem that people tend to picture the Hindenburg when they hear the word hydrogen.
Needless to say, Petterson’s mom didn’t want him to drive his pickup to Des Moines last fall.
“Mom was terrified I’d get hurt or break the truck,” he said.
On the contrary, Petterson managed to slip hydrogen into almost every conversation at the Global Youth Institute, and even led people out to the parking lot to inspect his DIY fuel cell.
“At our age, it’s so easy to talk about something,” he said. “But when you’ve got something to show, you can’t ignore it.”
Because fuel cells are scalable, his theory about them powering cargo ships could still hold true.
That said, we likely haven’t heard the last from Crawford Petterson.
He always had a different way of looking at things, but participation in the Global Youth Institute encouraged him to be bold.
“I can change the status quo,” he said.