School pupils go head to head to solve global challenges

The Zinc-Air Power team presenting their idea

The Zinc-Air Power team presenting their idea

Electricity from footsteps, nanorobots for wastewater treatment and zinc-air batteries were some ideas from this year’s Schools Science Competition.

The competition, run by Imperial College London’s Faculty of Natural Sciences , is open to teams of pupils of secondary school age from around the world. It encourages pupils to come up with new and innovative scientific solutions to specific issues.

Now in its fifth year, this year’s competition aims were aligned to the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Among these are Affordable and Clean Energy, Clean Water and Sanitation, and Good Health and Wellbeing.

The competition aims to motivate school pupils to engage with science, encourage them to work together as part of a team and engage them in a fun activity motivated by their curiosity and drive.

Over 150 teams of secondary school students registered for the competition this year, which was opened to schools outside of Greater London for the first time. Seven teams presented their ideas at a showcase event at the College in front of a live audience and a panel of VIP judges.

Battery scale-up

The winning team, Zinc-air Power from Pui Ching Middle School in Macau, focused on the Global Goal of Affordable and Clean Energy - ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

The team’s idea is to scale-up the use of zinc-air batteries, which are powered by reacting zinc with oxygen from the air. While zinc-air batteries are low-cost, rechargeable and safe, platinumand palladium-based materials are needed to create the reaction and these materials are costly and rare.

The team therefore identified a need to find replacement materials that work just as well and are also low-cost and environmentally friendly, in order to popularise and scale-up the production of zinc-air batteries. To do this the team used a Metal Organic Framework (MOF) , a crystalline material composed of a 3D network of metal ions.

The judging panel included Imperial’s Lord Robert Winston, Professor of Science and Society and Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies, Dr Simon Foster, physicist, and Dr Jess Wade, physicist and early career researcher in the Blackett Laboratory. They were joined by Renee Watson, founder of The Curiosity Box, the first STEM subscription box in the UK, which is a monthly supply of specially curated STEM activities that’s designed to bring science to life for families.

Nanorobots and electricity from commuters

The runners up were The Sciencesteins from Henrietta Barnett School in London and The Handy-Capables from Haydon School in Pinner.

The Sciencesteins chose to tackle the Global Goal of Clean Water and Sanitation, in particular pollution of water from sewage and farming run-off. Their project explored how nanorobots, tiny machines designed to perform a specific task with precision at nano-dimensions, could be used for water treatment.

The Handy-Capables focused on the challenge of Affordable and Clean Energy. Their idea was to use piezoelectric plates before and after ticket barriers at train and tube stations to power London streetlights. Piezoelectricity is the electric charge that accumulates in certain solid materials in response to applied mechanical stress - in this case, commuters’ footsteps.

Robotic Inclusion from Severndale Specialist Academy were highly commended for their robot called MAAC, which could plant seeds to grow vegetables, warm up or cool down its user depending on location, teach new languages or carry medicines. Their goal was Good Health and Wellbeing, ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for people at all ages.

The other three finalist teams were Mitro-Power from Hayes School in Bromley, Forte from Bablake School in Coventry and The Modern Day Einsteins from Parkstone Grammar School in Dorset.

The winners and runners-up all won a trophy, and all teams received certificates and a Schools Science Competition mug. Photos and graphics subject to third party copyright used with permission or Imperial College London.

Joanna Wilson
Communications and Public Affairs