Turning plastic into petrol wins top SciFest award

How can you turn end of life plastics (ELPs) into petrol and diesel? This week two enthusiastic scientists explained the process to me. ELPs are plastics, such as food wrappings, that cannot be recycled by current methods. Instead of sending these to landfill, you could heat them to 360°C in a modified gas cylinder. A cat litter mix turns into a nifty catalyst for the reaction. At this stage, the long chain carbon plastics are ‘cracking’ into smaller chain molecules which make up a petrol and diesel mix. Diverting this mixture through old copper pipes and into a paint tin surrounded by water cools it. Finally, you will need to add a tap to the bottom of the paint tin to collect the fuel you’ve made. Throw in a few safety features like a valve and bubbler for excess gas and you’re set!

These scientists were Ruairi O’Neill and Eoghan Flynn from Blackwater Community School in Lismore, Co. Waterford. They are pictured above with Minister of State, Ciarán Cannon. Their project ‘Polyfuel – A Novel Solution to Fuel Shortages and Disposal of ELPs’ took home the SciFest@Intel Award which was the overall prize at this year’s SciFest. They explained to me that their home-made apparatus could be viewed as a working model for a scaled-up version which would be more energy-efficient. With tests to prove their product is a petrol-diesel mix, the teenagers had big visions for the future. After talking to them, I was blown away by how they had made this SciFest entry through the trial and error of experimentation! Ruairi and Eoghan will have to make sure to have their passports updated as they’ll go on to represent Ireland at the International Science and Engineering Fair 2012 in Pittsburgh next May.

This award was the culmination of SciFest 2011 events which took place all over the country. Over 3,500 budding scientists participated at events in their school (SciFest@School) and local Institutes of Technology (SciFest@College) earlier in the year. Last Friday, the winners from the SciFest@College events showcased their projects at Intel’s Open Innovation Lab. Brendan Cannon of Intel Ireland, which jointly funds SciFest along with Discover Science and Engineering, opened the event. He commented on the importance of initiatives like SciFest to get Ireland back on its feet: “The future of a knowledge-based economy comes from an embedded knowledge of science and maths”.

All fourteen projects at SciFest@Intel were presented with their regional medals by the Minister Cannon. Students Aislinn Begley and Clara O’Reilly from St. Vincent’s Secondary School in Dundalk were the Discover Space Award winners for their project ‘Gamma Ray Bursts and Black Hole Formation – The Search for Fast-Rotating Wolf-Rayet Stars’. Their work, which included carrying out photometric analysis of images taken by a telescope in Hawaii, won the school a telescope which was presented by the European Space Agency.

Apparatus of winning project ‘Polyfuel – A Novel Solution to Fuel Shortages and Disposal of ELPs’

I was astounded at the knowledge of the students when I was chatting to them about their projects. Minister Cannon, mentioned two entrepreneurial projects in his address. One was ‘G-CRAPP Science – An Investigation into the Planning and Formation of a Science App for your Mobile’ by Callum Bashford, Shane Moran and Ryan Mc Grath from Coláiste Chomáin in Ros Dumhach, Co. Mayo. Having found science revision unexciting, they decided to make it more fun by designing a science app. The app has been designed for Junior Cert students and includes features such as anatomy of the body, chemistry in the kitchen and physics in a car. The team are even making videos of Junior Cert experiments. The other project was ‘Prototype Design for a Portable Agriculture Water Trough’ by Lauren Teague and Caroline Slevin from Loreto Grammar School in Omagh. The Minister offered to put them in contact with a manufacturer for their innovative frost-proof water trough. Dragon’s Den watch out!

Towards the end of the ceremony, Peter Brabazon, Director of Discover Science and Engineering, launched SciFest 2012. To ensure continued growth for SciFest, he explained their vision for the next year includes increased industry involvement: “We want more partners in business to work with your teams”. This will add an extra dimension to the partnership already in place between schools and local Institutes of Technology. 

Enthusiasm for science was evident everywhere at SciFest@Intel on Friday and it was brilliant to experience. Minister Cannon summed SciFest up perfectly: “It’s all about giving our young people the skills and confidence to be the innovators of the future”. Every student I talked to was brimming with skills they had learnt and confidence to speak about science and technology. Well done to all involved. Bring on SciFest 2012!

Photos: Courtesy of SciFest and @Intel_IRL

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