Bright young boffins

2013-09-01 14:00

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Budding scientists at the Eskom Expo present their revolutionary ideas

The world South Africa’s teens are set to inherit will look very different from the one they currently occupy.

They’ll have to deal with rising sea levels, increasingly freaky weather and a worldwide energy crisis that means learning to do more with less.

But there’s good news: at least some solutions are coming from teenagers themselves.

Eskom’s Expo for Young Scientists, which is held in heats around the country, gives youngsters a chance to showcase their bright ideas.

All the regional winners will now compete at the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists International Science Fair in Boksburg at the end of the month.

City Press examined some of the brightest science projects from the Gauteng and Limpopo fairs.

» Gabriella Nel

Grade 9, St Andrew’s School for Girls, Johannesburg

“My mum is always cold and my father is always complaining about our huge electricity bill,” says Gabriella.

“So I wanted to design a low-voltage electric system that saved South Africans money on their electricity bill, but still warmed them up.”

That’s how her Sunny Snuggle – which won the Eskom Award for Best Energy Efficiency – was born.

The Sunny Snuggle is entirely powered by the sun. It uses batteries powered by two solar panels, which in turn power the 60W blanket.

The blanket is washable, has three heat settings and a timer.

“It is the first of its kind,” she says, adding that the invention even comes with a two-year guarantee, thanks to the safety checks she did beforehand.

This includes top-quality safety systems that eliminate shocks, short circuits and safety hazards.

Gabriella, one of the youngest participants at the fair, designed the blanket from scratch and only had her electrical engineer granddad help with the safety checks after she was done.

It took her about three weeks to put the project together and she spent R1?200 on all the parts.

“The system pays for itself after a year,” she says.

“I definitely believe that the project is commercially viable,” she says.

Although the project has awakened the engineer in her genes, Gabriella is dead set on becoming a vet, specialising in horses and exotic animals.

“Next year my project will probably focus on horses and the solutions they offer to our planet’s problems.”

» Alex Paulsen

Grade 11, Redhill School, Johannesburg

Alex Paulsen and his Energy-Efficiency Grid. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press

Energy efficiency is close to Alex’s heart.

His project, The Energy-Efficiency Grid, is a smart computer system that saves energy by determining occupancy, ambient light and temperature in a room to manage the electricity use.

“We hear the message that we have to save electricity by switching it off, yet I see in my school people don’t understand the difference that one person can make,” he says. So he started at school.

At the beginning of this year, he started collecting Redhill’s electricity bills and calculated its energy usage.

“I checked all the appliances to see what was green and what was not, and I found a lot of lights were on when there was nobody there. The heaters were on, but windows were open. Lights were on, but it was bright outside.”

He found that Redhill High School could save more than 20 000kWh annually by using a smart grid system.

“I tried to build something that regulates lights and that ensures that the lights go off when everyone has left the room.”

Engineering friends at Wits gave him components and textbooks, and he taught himself to build the system. His system won the Eskom Award for Best Energy Project.

Each pupil must push a button when entering and exiting a classroom. Alex’s system then calculates when everyone has left and the lights are switched off. He also calculated that the school only needs four hours of light and the lights also switch off if the four hours have been used.

Afterwards it is possible to switch on the light if more is needed, but the lights will again shut off after half an hour.

For the national science fair, he wants to do away with the button-pushing system and instead use cellphone frequency to determine who is in the room.

“You know teens and their cellphones are never separated,” he says.

» Kyla King and Nedine Schoeman

Grade 10, Hoërskool Linden, Johannesburg

Nedine Schoeman and Kyla King from Hoërskool Linden teamed up to find a solution to pollution. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi/City Press

Best friends Kyla and Nedine teamed up to find a solution to pollution for ordinary South Africans using fire in their homes to cook or for warmth.

“We often see this thick blanket of smoke around rural areas and informal settlements, and we wanted to find a way to allow people to breathe more easily,” says Nedine. “So we designed and manufactured a special solar chimney.”

Their Household Fire Pollution Solution prototype used solar panels to power fans that extract smoke from homes and filter the air before releasing it into the atmosphere.

It took some experimenting to get the system right.

“We changed from coal particles, which were too big, to manganese particles and that improved the design a lot,” says Nedine.

The young women are passionate about helping people – both want to be doctors. That’s why their project, with its obvious health benefits, was the perfect fit.

» Phathutshedzo Mudimeli and Dombo Ontonda

Grade 10, Mbilwi Secondary School, Thoyandou

Dombo Ontonda (left) and Phathutshedzo Mudimeli with the project that scooped numerous awards at the Limpopo leg of the Science Expo. Their project, which uses discarded avocado waste for fuel, impressed the judges. Picture: Eskom

Avocados are plentiful in Phathutshedzo and Dombo’s neck of the woods.

So the two girls from Thoyandou decided to create energy from the discarded avo waste. Their invention, which investigated making biofuel from avo peels, earned them a gold medal, the Eskom Award for Best Energy Project and Eskom Award for Best Female Project.

The pair fermented discarded peels with a bit of water for three weeks, then distilled the alcohol from the water and manufactured fuel from the alcohol.

» Matimba Ndala and Anga Mamfanya

Grade 11, King’s Court College, Tzaneen

Instead of dodging dung from the cattle that populate their community, Matimba and Anga decided to put the stuff to good use.

The boys developed their own biodigester, which traps methane gas from the cow dung. The gas is burnt to create heat energy.

“Our project is based on a biodigester,” says Matimba. “A biodigester is basically something that provides a comfortable environment for enzymes to break down organic material such as cow dung. This process produces a greenhouse gas that can be used as a renewable source of energy when burnt efficiently.”

The two boys approached their life sciences teacher with the idea, researched the best renewable fuel and found that the cow-dung gas could work really well as a biofuel.

“It took us about two months to complete our project in order to present it, but since then we have been working on it and we are busy with our fourth design at the moment,” says Anga. Their project, Bovine Meadow Muffins, won the Eskom Award for Best Energy-Efficiency Project in the Mopani region.

Matimba dreams of being an environmental engineer and fixing the world’s environmental problems through science, while the maths-and-science-crazy Mamfanya wants to be a mechanical engineer.

“We’re basically going to work on the project until something good comes out of it,” says Matimba. “We really want to help people with this project. Hopefully, some day, there will be biodigesters in all rural communities around South Africa, but that’s just the vision we have.”

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