High School Innovators Address Climate Crisis: the Algae-Based Air Purifier Of Tomorrow
With Julek Amelian-Kowalski, Victoria Stanisławska, Adam Sujecki, Aleksander Wojdyła, Karolina Zaleska
In the face of increasing global warming and rising sea levels caused by CO2 emissions, a group of high school students took it upon themselves to address this critical issue. Their determination led them to devise an innovative solution that would make a significant impact. By participating in the prestigious "Solve for Tomorrow" competition organized by Samsung, they seized the opportunity to showcase their groundbreaking technology to a wider audience, earning them the remarkable second place out of 138 competing projects.
The students' ingenious solution centered around harnessing the remarkable CO2-absorbing capabilities of algae. Their aim was to develop a device that not only facilitated algae growth but also enabled the production of eco-friendly fibers for 3D printing.
In an interview for this article, we had the privilege of speaking with the brilliant minds behind this cutting-edge technology, delving into the meticulous yet exhilarating process of designing the device and unraveling the fascinating science that underpinned its creation.
What was the goal of your project and what motivated your team to choose air purifiers as the focus of your project? Were there any specific challenges or issues in this field that inspired you?
Victoria Stanisławska: In Poland, more than 46,000 people die prematurely due to poor air quality each year. Globally this number is close to 7 million. This is a huge loss of talent, potential and is a cause for much suffering. Science and technology are often solutions to solve challenges including air pollution. Every person would like to breathe clean air, yet not everyone has that opportunity. While it is hard for us to solve the global challenge of pollution, we would like to deliver such a solution to every home, bringing a healthier environment to families worldwide.
Thinking about sustainable development, climate change and health is what inspired us to pursue this project, which in itself is well aligned with Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. We are also proud to be a mixed team of individuals with different passions and focus areas. Complementary skills of our team members made our project stronger!
Can you explain the scientific principles or technologies behind your air purifier design? How did you approach the problem and come up with a unique solution?
Aleksander Wojdyła: When designing the InnOcean, we aimed for flexibility when it comes to external accessories and overall hardware compatibility. This is why we opted for the Raspberry Pi. It can be described as a microcomputer that is used in all sorts of projects, from small household devices to space engineering. Due to its versatility we were able to use multiple types of sensors that would be the most efficient for our needs. Its size is also a major advantage; it is much smaller than a typical computer, therefore it was easier to fit it into our design without reducing its usability.
It is no secret that the air purification market has experienced substantial growth in recent years, partially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and growing awareness of the poor conditions of air quality. With countless novel variations designed by renowned technology companies, were there any specific innovations or improvements that set your air purifier apart from existing solutions? What were some of the key features that made it stand out?
Karolina Zaleska and Julek Ameljan-Kowalski: Our algae based air cleaner takes a completely different approach to the market of air purifiers. Conventional ones are quite bulky devices with very little aesthetic value that usually just stand in the corner of an office. The ones we make are much smaller devices, with undeniably lower airflow. They are unable to service entire office spaces, but are much more aesthetic, smaller and simpler. They are intended to stand on a shelf or on a desk at home or in a bedroom. Keeping this in mind, nothing in principle stops the idea of building big algae based air cleaners for servicing office spaces and similar.
There are multiple air purifiers on the market, but none can be described as "living" devices. While aesthetics play an important role, the greatest differentiator in setting our air purifier apart from existing solutions is its eco-friendliness - a value that lies at the core of InnOcean. By replacing conventional air filters with algae (chlorella) and building our devices out of recycled and biodegradable materials, we significantly reduce the use of plastic in our production process. As a result of this, the use of our air purifier helps combat plastic pollution.
How did you validate the effectiveness of your air purifier? Did you conduct experiments or collect data to support your claims?
Julek Ameljan-Kowalski: In order to analyse the performance of our air purifier, we performed a long-term use test over the period of a month. The air close to the purifier felt noticeably cleaner, though it also had a faint smell of algae. Some other issues we identified were that the water tends to bubble up and splash small droplets out, and that the water also evaporates quite quickly and has to be refilled every two or so days. The algae tended to clump up slightly as we expected.
Through a literature review we learned that chlorella is known for its abilities to absorb impurities from air. Sadly, due to the lack of appropriate testing equipment and controlled conditions, we were unable to run a qualitative analysis of performance parameters such as absorption of different classes of impurities or experiments estimating the largest serviceable area.
Aside from the parameters which you were unable to analyse, did you discover any surprising results in the data that was available to you? What were some of the key findings or outcomes of your project?
Adam Sujecki: The competition guidelines put a lot of emphasis on design thinking: an iterative process of product development through feedback received from customers. As a result, over the duration of the project we run many surveys and interviews which have resulted in a variety of findings.
Perhaps the most important things we’ve learnt from the consumers was to keep the price of the device low, and its operation procedure as simple as possible. In pursuit of the latter objective, we’ve attempted to make our first prototype fully autonomous. This required programming a control loop, and fitting the aquarium with a variety of sensors and actuators, all of which were proving troublesome to connect and correctly code. While we’ve achieved the objective of limiting the user input, as the device started to become progressively more and more complicated, we quickly exceeded the price our consumers were willing to pay for the object.
How did you overcome this obstacle?
Adam Sujecki: This is where we have decided to make the switch to a simpler chlorella based model, which allowed us to immensely simplify the device resulting in lower manufacturing costs. The change also made the device easier to operate, and due to its more compact size and better aesthetics, more justifiable to run in a household environment.
Based on the positive feedback we have received during the pitch and global fundraising successes of similar seaweed carbon recapture ventures, a key finding of our project is proving that there exists a customer base for our product, even if there’s still a gap between where the device currently is and where it should be for market adoption. On the other hand, over the past months we’ve learnt that this gap is significantly larger than we initially assumed: the seaweed care process still needs further simplifications before our device becomes a common household object.
Based on this team’s testimonials, it seems that Samsung's Solve for Tomorrow competition presents a remarkable opportunity for young individuals who possess a profound passion for STEAM sciences. It extends beyond solely attracting those with a keen interest in these fields, as it also appeals to individuals genuinely concerned about the future of our world and determined to discover innovative solutions to address the challenges our society confronts. To gain deeper insights into this competition, we reached out to Karolina Zaleska, who shared her personal experience participating in the event.
Would you recommend the Samsung Solve For Tomorrow competition? What advice would you give to other students who are interested in participating?
Karolina Zaleska: Samsung SFT teaches entrepreneurship and STEAM - two fields which share challenges as their common denominator, as they both revolve around tackling the abundance of challenges they face. Design thinking, which the SFT program promotes, allows students to explore a complex set of challenges, forming a unique perspective and enabling them to develop an exceptional skill set to address these problems. Through the program, Samsung provides the tools for young people to turn their dreams of solving a local issue that they feel strongly about into reality. I would undoubtedly recommend the program to anyone who is interested in translating their technical knowledge to a tangible project which generates an impact on the community around them. Whether you are interested in engineering, finance, marketing, sociology or virtually any other field, Solve for Tomorrow can enable you to contribute with your academic passion to the betterment of society – an exceptional experience.
For more information about the Solve for Tomorrow competition visit the website: https://solvefortomorrow.pl
Mini InnOcean is an algae-based air purifier. Efficient. Aesthetic. Low-maintenance. Cheap.
Our product is a competitive alternative for the conventional air cleaners. Thanks to the use of Algae, the device doesn't require any unrecyclable filters for its operation, making the device almost fully biodegradable and eco-friendly. Furthermore, the entire outer casing of the device is 3D printed from biodegradable materials. While the algae in the tank is dealing directly with absorption of CO2 and other greenhouse and toxic compounds, the rest of impurities are dissolved in the water tank.