National science fair: Students show promise of solutions to everyday local problems

THE EXPRESS TRIBUNE – Waqas Naeem – January 29, 2013 – ISLAMABAD – Two years ago, Haris bin Ashraf set out to solve a household problem. “The gutter line of my house had choked because of plastic bags,” Ashraf said, laughing nervously. “I thought something must be done about it.”

While most teenagers would have settled for unclogging the drain, Ashraf, now a student of grade 10 at Karachi’s Defence Authority Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed College, went straight to the root of the problem: the natural decomposition of plastic bags.

Polythene bags take hundreds of years to disintegrate, according to scientific estimates. So Ashraf started researching ways to accelerate the decomposition process.

On Monday, he was in Islamabad to display his Cost Efficient Self Disintegrating Eco Friendly (CESDEF) Plastic Bags Project at the National Science Fair 2013.

The fair, organised by Intel Pakistan at the Allama Iqbal Open University in sector H-8, featured around 80 science projects produced by some 250 high school students from all over Pakistan. These students had previously won at provincial-level science fairs, also organised by Intel in 2012.

Ten students — four individual projects and two team projects — who win the national science fair will represent Pakistan at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), said Intel Pakistan’s country manager Naveed Siraj.

The Intel ISEF, supposed to be the “world’s largest pre-college science competition”, will be held in Pheonix, Arizona, in the US in May 2013.

On Monday, the students presented science projects in eight different categories, including physics, environmental sciences, robotics and alternative energy. From a Papaya-based cure for dengue fever to efficient wind-mill energy production and space exploration satellites, the students came up with innovative research-based projects.

In the environmental sciences section of the fair, Ashraf said he settled upon Zeolite, a naturally occurring mineral that has several commercial uses including detergents, after a lot of background reading and experimentation. In fact, he placed small orders for plastic bags to be made with Zeolite so he could test their degradation over a few months.

“When mixed with polyethylene resins, the Zeolite can make the plastic bags decompose in an estimated 9 to 10 months,” Ashraf said, based on the analysis of the bags by Karachi-based laboratory.

The cost is slightly more than polythene bags but much less than other eco-friendly alternatives, he said.

The bio oxodegradable bags, which naturally decompose in three to four months and could be the only alternative in Islamabad if a pending regulation banning plastic bags in the federal capital is passed by the ministry of climate change, cost Rs10 compared to Rs6, according to Ashraf. A similarly sized polythene bag would cost around Rs5.

Ashraf’s solution might not be novel: Zeolite has been used in plastic bags in western countries, where it has been advertised to store fruits for longer periods because of its ability to adsorb ethylene gas.

But for Pakistan’s plastic bag pollution issue, it could be a much-needed remedy.

Some of the projects seemed even more advanced than the grade-level of the students. For example, Rahimullah and Muhammad Mehdi, first-year students from Edwards College, Peshawar, said they had spent money from their own pockets to build a prototype robot intended as a fire-safety tool.

“The idea is to build a robot that could rescue humans from burning buildings especially if there is dense smoke,” Raheemullah said. “We could also add fire-fighting capabilities to the prototype, if we have enough funds.”

For now, they have trained the robot to follow a straight-line path.

Like Ashraf’s project, most of the ideas were based on practical applications that could resolve Pakistan’s problems.

Fatima Moin, Hania Hasan and Ummae Salma, students of the Mama Parsi Girls School in Karachi, said they came up with the idea to purify water using finely ground fruit peels because they wanted to focus on the lack of clean drinking water in Pakistan. The initial results of their project show the fruit peel approach can remove a significant percentage of harmful heavy metals such as lead from water.

Salma said it would have been difficult for them to work on the project if it hadn’t been for the platform provided by the Intel science fair.

Earlier, Dr Manzoor Soomro, chairman of the Pakistan Science Foundation, urged the students to focus on scientific research and discover their true potential instead of following the career choice thrust upon them due to parental or peer pressure.

The winners of the 2013 fair will be announced at the closing ceremony on Wednesday.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2013.

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