Sustainable fashion and vertical farming: Young Scientists go green

7 Jan 2021

Opening of the 2021 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photogrpahy

This year’s BT Young Scientist event features plenty of projects with a focus on sustainability and the environment.

The 2021 BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition kicked off yesterday (6 January), with 550 projects from students around Ireland brought together in a new virtual format.

While many projects at the 2021 exhibition are focused on Covid-19 and the ongoing pandemic, sustainability is another big theme with students this year.

Orlaith Ni Ghallchobhair from St Kevin’s Community College in Wicklow wanted to investigate whether nettles could be a sustainable solution to fast fashion.

“The inspiration for this project was when I realised that most of my wardrobe is made from synthetic fibres,” she said in her project video. “While these garments can be recycled several times, it takes 200 years for them to break down.”

Ni Ghallchobhair collected nettles and extracted their fibre, then performed tests to compare the strength, water absorption and insulating properties of this fibre compared to polyester.

She then spun the nettle fibre into yarn and knitted her own scarf. “When I’m finished with the scarf I can put it in my garden composter,” she concluded. “Nettles provide a biodegradable alternative for providing wool and yarn to the clothing industry.”

‘I’ve always been conscious of the environment and wanted to do a project that enabled me to help the planet’

Another student looking to reduce their environmental footprint was Liam O’Leary, a second-year pupil from Coláiste Muire Crosshaven in Cork. His project looked at ways to reduce his impact on the environment in his day-to-day life.

O’Leary cycled to school and back each day for three weeks, and made a dynamo for his bike with which he could generate electricity to charge his phone. He also upped his recycling, started bringing his own bags and containers to shops, and switched to e-books and online submissions for school work instead of using paper. During this experiment, he calculated that he reduced his carbon footprint from 13.4 tonnes per year to 8.5 tonnes per year.

“I’ve always been conscious of the environment and wanted to do a project that enabled me to help the planet and hopefully inspire others to do the same,” O’Leary said. “I was amazed that such small everyday changes could have a real impact.”

Agriculture alternatives

Other projects looked to the world of agriculture for inspiration. Luke Fox-Whelan from Templeogue College in Dublin investigated whether plants could adapt to our changing climate through epigenetics, preparing crops for future dangers and mitigating the issue of food insecurity.

“Winter weather is going to get much wetter, with the worst predictions for Ireland increasing winter rainfall by 14pc,” Fox-Whelan explained. “My hypothesis is if the plants are artificially flooded in a close time frame, they will keep those genes for dealing with water stress turned on, and be able to better deal with large floods later.”

He grew three pots of barley – the control and the two variables – and gave them an average amount of rain every day. The variables were given two “priming stresses” of storm-levels of water, and then all three pots got a much larger, three-day storm stress. Many of the control plants became fragile but the variables remained stronger, supporting the hypothesis.

‘We believe that vertical farming is the future of farming and we’re excited to see what’s in store for the future’

Meanwhile, Niamh McManus and Jess Joy from Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan wanted to find out if vertical farming could be quicker and more cost-effective than conventional arable farming in Ireland, while having benefits for the environment.

They set up a miniature vertical farm with LED lights and a deep water culture system, and a miniature conventional arable farm with soil, water and natural sunlight. They grew lettuce and coriander in both farms, and measured the rate of growth by looking at the height, the number of leaves, the size of the largest leaves and the dry mass.

“Our results between both systems were contrasting, with the plants from the vertical farm being larger in every way, shape and form,” Joy said. “We believe that vertical farming is the future of farming and we’re excited to see what’s in store for the future.”

In Cork, Christopher O’Donovan and Mikolay Oramus from Clonakilty Community College set out to create biodegradable food containers after realising how much single-use plastic ends up in landfill or as litter.

They developed a container made from mycelium, which is the roots of mushrooms, and coated it in beeswax to protect it from liquids and foodstuffs. The pair then tested their container in terms of strength and how it retains heat, in comparison to a standard plastic container.

While the mycelium alternative did slightly worse in both tests, Oramus said that the container has “great potential” and could do well commercially. “The mycelium performed admirably,” he added. “We concluded that, with some further developments, the mycelium container could outperform the plastic ones.”

Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic