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Method to clean wastewater wins teen Google Science Fair award

SINGAPORE — Knowing that the presence of large quantities of toxic heavy metals in wastewater poses a health risk to people and harms aquatic life, 18-year-old Shannon Tan sought to come up with a solution to purify wastewater from heavy industries.

Method to clean wastewater wins teen Google Science Fair award

Shannon Tan won the Local Award at the Google Science Fair, beating six other regional finalists from Singapore. Photo: Shannon Tan

SINGAPORE — Knowing that the presence of large quantities of toxic heavy metals in wastewater poses a health risk to people and harms aquatic life, 18-year-old Shannon Tan sought to come up with a solution to purify wastewater from heavy industries.

His research led him to propose a novel way to remove heavy metal ions, such as copper and nickel, from industrial wastewater by using a treated material from crustacean shells called chitosan. By first exposing chitosan beads to ultraviolet radiation, then dropping the beads into the water, a stable compound would form with the harmful metal ions in it, thus extracting the impurities from the water.

His research and the innovative proposal won him the Local Award at this year’s Google Science Fair competition, beating six other regional finalists from Singapore.

The Google Science Fair is an annual global online competition open to students between the ages of 13 and 18. It introduced the Local Award this year to recognise projects that address locally relevant issues.

“Shannon’s idea to remove toxic heavy metals from water by using UV rays and infrared light, combats a challenge not only (his) region is facing, but also a challenge globally,” Ms Clare Conway, spokeswoman for the Google Science Fair, told TODAY.

This year’s competition saw thousands of entries from more than 90 countries, with 90 finalists emerging from the Asia-Pacific region.

Irish teenage trio Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow, all 16, emerged as grand champions after they discovered a naturally-occurring bacteria in soil that could be used to speed up the germination process of certain crops, such as barley and oats, by 50 per cent, potentially helping to fulfil the rising demand for food worldwide.

“We’re looking for students to turn their passion into something that could change the world and projects that tackle some of today’s greatest challenges,” said Ms Conway.

She added that the Google Science Fair team had seen many remarkable ideas over the years from around the world, on “everything from anti-flu medicine ... to more efficient ways of farming”.

Among the regional finalists, other projects from Singapore included a proposal to prevent mosquito breeding by using a type of detergent that reduces surface tension on water, thereby discouraging the mosquitoes from laying eggs on it. Another was to recover waste heat from power plants to turn it into a viable electricity source.

Shannon, a final-year Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) International Baccalaureate Diploma student, said he first worked on this project as part of a school assignment. “I was just wondering if you could actually address this water (issue) in Singapore.”

“After I completed the (project), (I thought) why not submit it to the Google Science Fair for the fun of it? It was on my own accord. I tried my luck.”

He believes his project can provide “a commercially viable alternative for toxic waste removal in industrial water”, which can then be used for non-potable purposes.

“I have an interest in medicine and I like to help people. I would like to help the community and try to make the world a better place. With this project, I think I have done my bit,” he said.

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