ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Toy bugs, an eighth grade Minnesota boy, and a school science project. Put the three together and you get a combination that's already being used to save hearing aid wearers big bucks.
When you think scientist or major medical discovery, a 14-year-old boy, who struggles just to get his locker to close, is probably not the mental image you conjure up.
As even Ethan Manuell, a middle school student at Rochester Central Lutheran, would admit, "It's really mind blowing."
But proving the old adage that looks can be deceiving, Manuell is behind a discovery that a Ph.D at an academic medical mecca would be proud of.
What the boy uncovered is that hearing aid batteries can last up to 85 percent longer when left exposed to oxygen before being inserted into the hearing aid itself.
"I didn't dream or anything that this would become like this," said Manuell, discussing the accolades he has received in the wake of his findings.
When Ethan's teacher, Mrs. Omland, assigned her students the task of creating a project for the school science fair, Ethan says it sparked his interest. So the 14-year-old turned to his toy box for some plastic battery operated bugs that he converted to work with hearing aid batteries.
"It's a robotic bug -- all it does is vibrate," explained Ethan as he showed off his experiment. What he found has created a buzz loud enough to be heard across cyberspace.
"You can google Ethan," said Ethan's mom, Lila Manuell while laughing, recalling the experiment spread across her home for months.
Using his vibrating toy bugs, Ethan discovered that zinc hearing aid batteries, which come with a tab or sticker attached to the back of them, last longer the longer they are exposed to air after removing the tab.
"With waiting five minutes, you can increase the lifespan by 85 percent," said Manuell.
Some hearing aid battery packets, in microscopic print, do warn that for best results the battery should sit un-tabbed for one minute, others offer no instructions at all. But by carefully monitoring how long the batteries lasted in the toy bugs, after being left un-tabbed for various amounts of time, Ethan came up with his five-minute rule. "If you wait five minutes, you'll get the longest battery lifespan," he said.
Ethan, who has worn a hearing aid in his left ear since the age of four, got the idea for his experiment when visiting with his audiologist, Dr. Mary Meier, at Olmsted Medical Center.
"I keep telling my patients about it," said Dr. Meier, "I'm just so proud of this kid."
Dr. Meier and other audiologists at Olmsted have been using Ethan's discovery to help their patients save money on hearing aids.
"It's in our written information when we do a fitting," she said. "In the real hearing aid world, it's translating to hearing aids, the battery in the hearing aid lasting one to two days longer, which is a huge impact for people wearing hearing aids because the batteries typically only last five to seven days as it is, so if you can increase it by another day, that is huge."
Seven million Americans wear hearing aids and it's estimated Ethan's discovery could save the average hearing aid wearer about $70 a year.
From his local school science fair, Ethan went on to regionals, and eventually the state competition. At each stop, his five-minute rule has received accolades. He even won a prestigious U.S. Naval Science Award. Not bad for a kid who said he only had one goal when his project began: get a good grade in science.
A.J. Lagoe, Investigative Reporter