Two Singaporean students have successfully entered the finals of the prestigious Google Science Fair for their project on converting food waste into an alternative source of renewable energy.
This July, 16-year-old National Junior College students, Emma Tan and Jenevieve Ho, will be among 19 teams travelling to Google’s international office in Mountain View, California in the US to present their project to a panel of judges – after managing to stand out among 100 teams in the region.
The annual science competition, which first started in 2011, is open to students between the ages of 13 and 18 from around the world. It encourages them to come up with projects that “offer a new perspective, fresh thinking, or an innovative approach” to the realms of science, technology, engineering mathematics, Google said.
In order to be selected, participants had to show the judges how and in what areas their research findings could be applied to real-world scenarios. They also have to show passion for their project.
Winners of the regional category get to progress to the global finals in the US.
The grand prize of the competition is a US$50,000 (S$68,000) scholarship funding from Google that will be used to “further the Grand Prize winner’s education”.
This is not the first time Singapore candidates have made the finals.
Others include a project on supercapacitor design by Marion Pang, Joy Ang and Sonia Arumuganainar; one on rechargeable zinc air batteries by Zhilin Wang; a research on treatment for liver inflammation by Yi Xi Kang, Tricia Lim and Samantha Kwok, and more.
The girls’ project involved a study of whether food waste – particularly banana peels as well as the pith and rind of juiced sugarcane pulp – could be utilised as a replacement substrate in microbial fuel cells (MFCs).
MFCs are bio-electrochemical systems that generate electricity by making use of processes that occur naturally in bacteria. Such devices have gained popularity over the past decades as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
In an interview with Business Insider, Tan and Ho said that food waste has become a common problem not only in Singapore but on a global scale, regardless of whether a country is considered developing or not.
“All countries have the potential to resolve this problem, and its a pressing one that can be worked on. MFCs have shown potential to generate clean energy and it is a really cool way to solve climate change,” Ho said.
Describing food waste as “a really big issue in Singapore now”, Tan said the team decided to focus on local food waste like sugarcane and banana peels.
She added that climate change is an issue that both of them “feel very strongly about” and that MFCs might provide an answer to the problem.
“MFCs are a relatively new technology, it’s not as expensive as other forms of clean energy generation,” she said.
In their research proposal, Tan and Ho noted that the focus of ongoing MFC research has shifted from optimising performance to finding “sustainable, low-cost” materials that enable the systems to be used in real-world operations on a large scale.
They added that although extensive research has been done to study the use of common substrates such as glucose in MFCs, there is limited research into food waste as a sugar source.
“We hope that this project will contribute to the knowledge of MFCs that we already have now. Applying this to the local context has not really been explored before,” Tan said.
For their project, they conducted an investigation on the voltage performance of food waste with that of glucose in MFCs to determine if the former could be used to generate clean energy more efficiently.
Their research findings revealed that banana peel MFCs had better voltage performance than the pith and rind of sugarcane, and was comparable to that of glucose.
Inexperience in the research process was the toughest challenge
When asked what were the toughest challenges they faced, both unanimously said that their lack of experience in conducting research was the tallest hurdle they had to overcome.
“This is the first project we have done. We’ve never worked in a lab before and we’ve never worked with such sustained effort,” Ho said.
She added: “We had to learn how things worked in a lab, how to research, how to find articles and piece information together. But it was fun to experience things never done before. It was a whole new world for me, and research is a big part of my life now.”
Tan added that although they were initially unfamiliar with the research process, they were able to persevere with the support and guidance from their school and mentors.
Since this is their first research project, news of their successful entry to the finals of the science fair came as a pleasant surprise to the duo, who found it difficult to believe that they had made it that far in the competition.
Ho said: “We totally didn’t expect the news because it was so sudden. This science fair is so well-known and so huge. To be a finalist is amazing. It’s something not many people can experience in a lifetime.”
“It was an unbelievable moment, it was insane. We thought: ‘Is this a prank?'” Tan said.
As they look forward to their trip in July, the two girls said they are excited to meet the other finalists, learn from like-minded people and discover how different environments and cultures have impacted the projects that inspired them.
Stephanie Davis, Google’s Singapore country director said: “We believe every idea has the power to shape the world, and it is great to see young thinkers around the world using science, technology, engineering or math to solve important problems.”
“We are also glad to see Singapore represented in this competition, and very proud of Emma and Jenevieve’s achievement so far,” Davis added.