BTYSTE Participants Tackle Ireland’s Climate Problems and Threatened Biodiversity

An environmentally friendly and inexpensive electrolyte made from brown seaweed that can be used in a battery to generate green electricity has been developed by two students from Carrigtwohill, Co Cork.

The seaweed acts as an electrolyte and is made up of “abundant, heat-stable and biodegradable material”, enabling the generation of renewable electricity in a capacitor that stores energy, explained Sophie O Reilly and Robyn Sloane Lee who frequent the St Aloysius College.

Their project is one of many at this year’s BTYSTE where young researchers investigated the ability of locally available natural resources to ensure more sustainable living, while helping to tackle the climate crisis, improve Irish biodiversity or to counter the Covid-19.

The capacitor cell they built centers around the natural polymeric sodium alginate found in seaweed that grows in abundance near where they live.

It has good gelling properties, considered essential for an electrolyte, and is inert. When graphite electrodes made of pure carbon are used, there is little threat to the environment or to human health.

They tested various combinations in a variety of electrical circuits. “We have had great success in our search for green energy,” added Robyn. Using sodium alginate in combination with three other chemicals has shown the best results, as they are determined to improve efficacy even further in the months to come.

Forest fires

Transition year students Alex Roche and Eimear Keenan, who attend Moate Community College in County Westmeath, used native Irish plants to make a prototype ‘green firebreak’.

Horrified by the scale of the destruction caused by wildfires – particularly in Killarney, Co. Kerry – they concluded that “this will suppress the spread of wildfires, whilst contributing to biodiversity”.

Over several months, they examined the properties of various native plants taken from gardens, bogs and hedgerows, including their flammability and water content. High water and ash content and long burn time gave the best results.

While oak proved impressive, holly was deceptive as it had a high water content but burned fiercely from its volatile oils when ignited. None of the suitable plants supported a flame independently, so they were deployed in their firebreak.

Additionally, they supported a wide variety of species, including slugs, birds, insects and mammals, while also acting as a good food source, they confirmed.

Augmented reality

Farsaad Ahmad Kamran of Kishoge Community College in County Dublin was determined to develop ‘augmented reality glasses’ for the visually impaired that were cheap and flexible to improve the quality of life for those who cannot see properly or suffer from dyslexia .

He fulfilled the mandate. Its prototype uses “artificial intelligence and computer vision” to help interpret the world for the visually impaired. His glasses read words after pressing a button and taking a photo. “It identifies the distance and the object and can estimate what it is, based on what it thinks it is looking at,” he explained. “And it can be used with headphones or Bluetooth headphones.”

He developed a microcomputer with software to perform the task and used 3D printing to allow it to be combined with the glasses. Farsaad, however, believed it could be made less clunky if done in a professional environment. Moreover, he insisted that they can be made for less than €100 compared to the less flexible products currently available between €2,000 and €5,000.

Rower

The huge need for new sources of electricity prompted three students from Ardscoil Rís in Limerick to invent a device to harness the potential energy of a rowing machine. But St Michael’s Rowing Club members Patrick Stenson, Shane Rafferty and Colm Murphy thought it could easily be applied to treadmills and bicycles.

They built a 12-volt motor which, combined with a storage battery and an electric inverter, can power a variety of household appliances and cell phones.

Patrick said their clean electric power could fit in when the sun isn’t bright and there’s little wind. “I can guarantee there won’t be a day when there won’t be rowers training,” he added.

Pandemic

A large number of projects have looked at ways to reduce the risk of Covid-19 and the mental health aspects of the pandemic. A notable achievement on this front has been a biodegradable face mask made from seaweed fibers, which prevents acne, skin diseases and reduces the spread of respiratory diseases. It was made by Hana Haggag, Liam Ferguson and Ava Walsh of St Joseph’s Community College in Kilkee, Co Clare.

A plentiful supply of brown seaweed along the coast around Loop Head made this possible. They cooked the seaweed at a temperature of 90 degrees, generating a “very crispy powder”, which was then reconstituted into a material used in their face mask.

This year’s projects cover a wide range of topics on health, mental well-being, the climate crisis and biodiversity loss – with more than 200 prizes awarded in four categories. The overall winner who will receive €7,500 in prize money and the chance to represent Ireland in the European Union competition for young scientists will be announced on Friday.

The public can view the projects and other events of the BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibition via the exhibition portal. More details are at btyoungscientist.com

Teresa H. Sadler