The best ideas from the world’s largest science fair – including three from young South Africans

Each year, more than seven million high school students around the globe develop original research projects and present their work at local science competitions in the hope of making it to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair – the world’s largest pre-college science competition.

Approximately 1,700 winners of local, regional, state, and national competitions are invited to participate in a week-long celebration of science, technology, engineering, and math. At the event, students compete for more than $4 million in awards and scholarships.

For 2018, nine outstanding young scientists were selected from South Africa to travel to Pittsburgh, US, to present their projects at the Intel International Science Fair.

Three local learners won prizes at the prestigious science fair, including one special award and two category awards.

Alecia Brits, a grade 12 learner at Diamantveld High School in Kimberley won a special award from the USAID Mother and Child Programme and $500 in prize money.

Her project, “Biochemical frontline infection detection” aimed to identify and determine the susceptibility of micro-organisms that cause skin infections without the need for laboratory infrastructure or equipment.

Gabriele Gess, a grade 12 learner from St Cyprian’s School in Cape Town took home fourth prize in the Animal Sciences category and $500 in prize money.

Her project investigated the availability and sources of pollen collected by honey bees on a fruit farm in the Piket Bo-berg area in the Western Cape Province during the summer months (December to March) when there is little or no rainfall.

The third prize was won by Martha Djan, a grade 12 learner from Potchefstroom High School for Girls in the North West.

She too took home fourth place prize and $500 in prize money for her project that looked at how to extract metals from mine dumps using plants.

Oliver Nicholls, from Sydney, Australia, was awarded first place overall for designing and building a prototype of an autonomous robotic window cleaner for commercial buildings.

In essence, a flying drone-like device is tethered to the roof of a building and equipped with a powerful spray nozzle and rotating scrubbers. The $2,300 device can withstand 28 mph winds and could replace traditional methods that can exceed $11,000 per cleaning and reduce injuries in this high-risk occupation.

Nicholls received the Gordon E. Moore Award of $75,000, named in honor of the Intel co-founder and fellow scientist.

Meghana Bollimpalli from Little Rock, Arkansas, received an Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award of $50,000 for her novel, low-cost approach for synthesizing materials that could greatly cut the production and energy costs of making electrodes for devices like supercapacitors.

She found that combining common substances like tea and molasses with nitrogen and phosphorus in a commercial microwave formed a powder that could be used as a coating for electrode-like materials, giving them similar properties of more expensive metals like platinum.

Dhruvik Parikh from Bothell, Washington, also received an Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award of $50,000 for his development of less-expensive, yet more robust, ion exchange membranes for use in large, industrial-scale batteries for storing solar or wind-generated electricity for later distribution.

His composite membrane has ten times the proton conductivity of the industry’s standard membrane, while reducing production costs by about 30%.

Read: South Africa’s best universities to study maths, science and technology

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The best ideas from the world’s largest science fair – including three from young South Africans