A science fair project that started out with the simple goal of getting a good mark is now taking a pair of Grade 8 scientists from Greystone Heights School all the way to the Canada-Wide Science Fair.
Kevin Liu and Saabir Yousuf wanted their project to be something interesting and innovative. Their idea of small-scale, economically feasible desalination plants won top prize in the junior category of the Saskatoon Regional Science Fair and earned them a spot in the national event in Fredericton, N.B. They received a bronze medal as a junior excellence award during the event held May 11-17.
"In the beginning, of course, we didn't intend this to go to the national level, but we wanted to get a good mark on it," Yousuf said. "We thought at the beginning desalination was kind of pretty boring, so let's just make it economically feasible and see what that brings us. After designing it we thought it was going to be OK.
"We did not expect to win at all," he added with a laugh. "They (the judges) seemed to like it. They thought it was innovative and cool. They seemed more impressed with it than we did."
Several Greystone Heights students also received recognition at the regional science fair. Lucas Le and Samuel Wardell received a
Grade 6 Young Scientist Award for their project entitled, The Ion Drive. Grade 8 students Dishita Emayavaramban and Cindy Li received an honorable mention in the junior category for their project, Bees in Decline: The Key to Solving this Crisis.
The inspiration for Liu and Yousuf's project came from a presentation on watershed preservation made to their class. The presenter talked about protecting watersheds, noting that even though the Earth's surface is 97 per cent water, most of it is salt water. Liu said the importance of water security struck a chord.
"We are experiencing water shortage more frequently around the world and we thought it would be a really interesting topic to try to figure out a solution to the problem," he said.
Their first step was to examine desalination, the process of removing salt from saltwater. Following their research, they started formulating designs and created a potential prototype. That initial design, they agree, was "horrible," but it served as a jumping off point to re-engineer their project.
"Because our project is an economically feasible desalination we started thinking about what we could do to make the whole plant cost less and what materials could we use. The method of desalination really played a part in that," Yousuf said.
"At first the method we chose was really simple," Liu explained, "basically boiling water and condensing the vapour – which is the easiest way to do it. But then we realized we couldn't really make that method economically feasible because of the energy consumption, especially on a large scale.
"In the end what we finally decided upon is this method called low-temperature distillation or vacuum distillation. Basically, water boils at a lower temperature under lower air pressure so we incorporated that into our design."
The most difficult aspect was the design of their proposed structure, the students agree. Because of the vacuum created by the process, the structure had to be designed so not to collapse into the vacuum while at the same time being of a shape that is economically feasible to manufacture.
A unique aspect of their project, one they feel appealed to the science fair judges, is the notion of small-scale desalination plants that could be located on the ocean.
Compared to the traditional approach, their proposal called for smaller desalination plants that would float on the ocean. Originally, they considered the design of a larger plant but realized that a larger number of smaller, more cost-effective plants would be more economical.
While the project originated at school, the weeks since their regional science fair win have been devoted to additional hours of after-school research and taking a critical eye to their idea.
"This is another challenge we are facing," Yousuf said. "This being a school project we put a lot of work into it, but we didn't look at every single aspect to make sure that it completely worked, because in the end it was just a school project. But now that we are going to the national level we have to put more research into it and find out all of the little, nit-picky things that we can fix."
"For me," Liu added, "I'm trying to figure out if this is actually a good idea or is this comparable to other good projects? I don't have a lot of stuff to compare this to."
Both are looking forward to the opportunity provided by the Canada-Wide Science Fair. No matter how they place it will be an opportunity to learn more, view other projects and participate in science-related activities with other students from across the country.
They are both enrolled in the Grade 9 SAGE program at Walter Murray Collegiate for this fall and, not surprisingly, their eyes are set on future careers in science and engineering.
"Both of us want to be aerospace engineers and work at NASA or SpaceX or wherever," Yousuf said. "That's our ambition."