Preventing volcanic ash damage to jet engines

Published in Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Science Spin

We all remember the chaos caused by the eruption of the volcano in Iceland earlier in the year, and how fearful airlines were of the resulting ash cloud. Therefore, it is very timely that Ahmed Saeed, Seán Power and Craig Laurie, – pictured on the right – three transition year students at Castletroy College, Limerick, have been investigating how to prevent damage to a jet engine from volcanic ash.

The students had been exploring a number of ideas for the BT Exhibition, and eventually started thinking about environmental problems in the modern world. The biggest environmental problem Ireland faced in recent years, of course, was the disruption caused when the cloud of ash erupted out of the Icelandic volcano.

The idea was also triggered by a relative of one of the students getting caught, and being unable to travel into or out of Ireland following the Icelandic eruption. Their teacher, Leonard Coughlan, says the students are running a test at the moment that aims to replicate what happens in a jet engine when ash enters. The idea then will be to design a system that can render the ash harmless to jet engine. One danger is to avoid creating a problem worse than the initial problem.

The students are realistic and believe that he problem will not be easily solved. However, they are determined to come up with a solution to a ‘real world’ issue. Certainly, should the students come up with a solution to this problem, they have an idea that could be potentially commercialized and sold as a product in future.

This could help ensure that flights are no longer grounded following eruptions, and geologists believe that more eruptions are a possibility this year, or next. As for the importance of the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition to the students, Leonard said: “In my opinion I think the show is quite important to them, as it gives them a look at how other teenagers approach science and their curiosity affects their investigations.”

Irish and German mothers vary on breastfeeding

Published in Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Science Spin

The story begins with a male caller phoning into the Ray Darcy show on Today FM to describe his disgust at having seeing a mother breast feeding in Dundrum Shopping Centre. Then one of the girls at Presentation Secondary School, Thurles, spoke of her father’s discomfort at seeing a woman breast feeding.

That did it, and a group of students at Presentation Thurles decided to find out exactly what Irish attitudes were to breast feeding compared to another country. The country they decided to compare with was Germany, by virtue of the fact that the school had long standing connections with a school in Rosenheim, Bavaria.

The plan was to conduct a survey of attitudes among Irish mothers and German mothers to the ‘emotive’ issue of breast feeding and the results were fascinating.

In general terms it appears that German women are more enthusiastic for breast feeding with more than 90 per cent of women surveyed in Rosenheim adhering to World Health Organisation guidelines to breast feed for the first six months. However, this doesn’t apparently tell the whole story as many German women also said that the breast fed, despite the fact that they didn’t particularly like it. The reason, it seems, is a strong desire to do the right thing, and follow the rules.

As we know in Ireland, people are not as bothered by rules, and the issue for women here was a sense of guilt when a decision was made to bottle feed.

The survey, conducted among 50 Irish and 50 German women was conducted by  students Alison Kelly, Sarah Jane O’Riordan, and Orlaith Quigley. The survey was done with the guidance of their teacher Emma Kavanagh. [The three students and their teacher, Emma, are pictured here above]

The aims of the survey were to determine the percentage of mothers that initiated breastfeeding; the average length of time breastfeeding was continued; the emotional, social and physical difficulties faced by breastfeeding mothers; how mothers were supported, and by whom. Clear differences emerged.

The survey determined that 100 per cent of the German women had initiated breast feeding with at least one child, while 56.25% of Irish women had done so. The survey found that, for the first child, 84 per cent of Irish mothers did not feed beyond three months. The mothers continued longer with breastfeeding for subsequent children, with 70 per cent not feeding their second child past three months, and 56 per cent deciding not to feed their third child past three months.

The results that came back from the students’ survey correlated closely with the Irish and German national statistics on breast feeding. A 2009 report in Ireland found that 47 per cent of women tried breast feeding to begin with, but that the figure had fallen to 28 per cent after four weeks. In Germany, meanwhile, the statistics indicate that 90 per cent start breast feeding and are still doing it six months later.  That is despite the fact that many German mothers don’t like it.

In Ireland it appears there are huge pressures on women to breast feed, and that they are made to feel guilty when they decide to bottle feed instead. Then, for those mothers that do breast feed in public they are often met with open hostility.

A musical instrument anyone call play

Published in Jan-Feb 2011 issue of Science Spin

Many of us are interested in music, and would love to play an instrument, but never found the time to put in the hard hours to learn the necessary skills.

For many then, it will be of interest to learn that a group of students in St Mary’s College, Rathmines, Dublin are developing an instrument anyone can play. The idea is that the instrument will be so simple, that even a musical novice, or a disabled person, will quickly be able to produce music of a decent quality.

David Howard, Gavin Wynne, and Emmet O’Toole, all 5th years, and keen musicians are developing the idea, under the supervision teacher, John Nisbet. The students want to develop a brand new instrument based around electronics and physical principles. The idea, simply put, is for the person ‘playing’ the instrument to put their hand in a box and control the music in that way.

The instrument, they believe, will be simple enough for the complete music novice to play it, or for a person suffering from many physical disabilities. It is very visual, and very clear, says John Nisbet, and it can be thought of as one step up from the musical mats that young children can step on to make music.

The inspiration for the idea came from things like the ‘light harp’ which is based on breaking up a beam of light, and the degree of breakage, creates the sound. The students are getting help from their teacher to develop the programmable integrated circuits that control a set of three musical notes and process them.

The broad idea is that a person’s hand, or a tool of some sort, can be used to control the amount of light being allowed into a square that controls the notes. This is dependent on the use of an LDR, or light dependent resistor, which ensures that the level of light allowed into the square, controls the music.

The students are currently designing and manufacturing their instrument at their school on the Lower Rathmines Road, in Dublin 6, in advance of the Exhibition. However, they already have their sights set well beyond January and the RDS, as they believe that their instrument could be commercially developed.

“They have a vision for this, it is not just for a laugh,” said John. “They have a vision for its use in a concert performance, or in a kids bedroom as a performing tool, as well as a training thing for musicians. They have thought about all this.”

Lucan students water test for Africa

An estimated 1.5 million children globally die each year from preventable diseases caused by drinking dirty water, according to UNICEF, the world’s leading children’s support agency. It is shameful that rich nations do not do more to prevent such deaths.

Great credit is due, therefore, to three young Lucan scientists, and volunteers with Self Help Africa, that are not happy to sit back and do nothing to help address this problem. Rachael O’Neill, Thomas Butler and Sarah Vu, of Lucan Community College investigated a simple-to-use test that would indicate whether water in a tank was safe to drink or not, for their 2010 BT Young Scientist and Technology exhibit.

The project goal was entitled: “To determine the levels of bacteria in rain water collected for drinking in Africa.” For it they won a Highly Commended prize in the Biological and Ecological Category, but the real prize would be to come up with a real test that could be used in Africa, that would potential save people’s lives.

The idea was to link up with Self Help Africa, a charity organisation that seeks to assess what people need on the ground, and to work with them on a grass roots level – rather than simply supplying various forms of aid. The Lucan students are all volunteers and linked their BT project with a Self Help project to provide clean water for Gilgil, a town of about 20,000 people located in the Kenyan Rift Valley Province.

Rachael O’Neill explained that Self Help had provided a 10,000 litre water tank for Gilgil, but people there still faced water problems in terms of contamination.

“It is very simple, the water hits off the roof and goes into the gutter and is fed by a pipe into the tank. The problem comes when the water is sitting there for months and months. There are two rainy seasons in Kenya, one around Easter and one in September. The water is collected and has to last six months.”

“The temperature will be an average of 26 or 27C. With that heat and the water sitting there for months there is an increase in bacteria – cholera, dysentery and typhoid. They are caused by faecal matter. It is kinda cruel, because these diseases – you know when you have them you can cure them almost by just drinking water – by hydrating yourself. But, if you have dirty water, you are just going to get sicker and sicker.”

The Lucan students wanted to help the people of Gilgil by trying to come up with a simple test to see whether the water in their tank is safe to drink, or not. They came up with a test using limestone, which was clever, as there is plenty of limestone in and around the town and it can be accessed very cheaply and easily. Limestone is a test for carbon dioxide (CO2 ) as the students learned from their science classes. A test for carbon dioxide is, in turn, a test for bacteria, as bacteria, like humans, emit CO2 during respiration. The more g CO2 given off the more bacteria are present. It’s that simple.

“There is no money,” Rachael said explaining the situation the Gilgil people are facing “and the nearest water system is 10 kilometres away”. Men travel to get the water, she explained, which is odd, as it is normally the woman’s job to get water. But, it is considered dangerous for a woman to travel that distance, so the men do it. Then even after travelling 10km to get water there is no guarantee that the clean water will be available. “We got a statistic,” said Rachael, “which said that at any one time 40 per cent of the water wells in Africa aren’t working.”

The students’ next move is to get in touch with researchers in Irish universities that can help them to come up with a test that is capable of providing a precise reading that will indicate when exactly the water supply has become unsafe for drinking.

First published in Science Spin, Issue 42, September-October 2010

Learning from Ants

They are incredibly strong, are prepared to lay down their lives for others, make excellent parents, work tirelessly for the common good and are superb engineers.

Clearly, we can learn a lot from ants.

Killian Creaner and David Connellan, students at Belvedere College, in Dublin, thought so too, and decided to investigate more about what we humans can learn from ants and how they live for their 2010 BT Young Scientist & Technology project entitled: “A study on the associations between ant colonies and human societies.”

Killian and David began by purchasing ‘ant farms’ from Argos and Toymaster. These farms provide the basic housing in which the farms can live. The next step was to buy a queen ant that would be capable of reproduction and a colony. The students bought their queen Carpenter Ant and colony on the


The queen arrived in a test tube with water in it, for moisture and a sticky substance for food. The students set about digging out tunnels from Styrofoam in the ant house, to try and replicate, as much as possible, the ant’s natural environment. The queen was assigned to a central or main chamber, and she went there and cornered herself off. That behaviour from the queen signalled that she was about to start laying eggs.

The edusci website had provided 10 foods for the colony – the queen doesn’t feed while she is pregnant. The students found that the ants loved to eat dead insects, honey or any kind of sweet foods. They hated cinnamon, pepper and mint. They began to observe the ants closely and got in touch with a renowned German ant scientist called Bert Hölldobler to find out more about how ants communicate.

The scientist said that ants communicate with each other by spraying hormones, called pheromones. This enables one individual ant to follow a scent towards a food source that has been located by another individual ant, for example. It is thought that ants follow the scent of ants from their own colony as they navigate the environment.

The importance of scent to ant communication was shown when Bert Hölldobler investigated what happen if the line of scent was broken, said Killian. “He found that it really confused them. They need to have a line of pheromone scent to guide them.” Furthermore, if an unfortunate ant from another colony wandered in to the colony, the ants would pick up the alien scent with their antennae and attack and kill the intruder.


Ants are part of a group of insects, known as the ‘social insects’. This group includes wasps, bees and termites. It is thought that ants evolved from wasps that gave up flying about 40 million years ago, so the links are close. One key unifying feature for the group is that they all have a ‘Queen’ that is solely responsible for reproduction.

The students decided to look at ants under a number of headings, and to see what we can learn from them. Under ‘childcare’ they noted that the ants look after their young when they are injured, even when they are not their own young, as long as they are from the same colony. So there is a shared role in childcare spread among society.

There is a definite hierarchy in ant society, with everyone assigned a task, and prepared to carry out that task for the wider good. There is no-one languishing ‘on the dole’ and everyone has a job to do. Unlike the Ireland of today, no-one is out of work.

In terms of ‘education’ ants show other ants where they have found food, and they help each other to navigate through the environment. Under the heading ‘security’ it is clear that ants are prepared to put their own lives before the life of the colony, and will attack much larger creatures, such as beetles if they invade colony territory. Once they attack they will fight to the death, and there is no question of ‘taking prisoners’.

Ants are brilliant engineers and architects, and indeed there is a ‘school of thought’ that wishes to use some of their methods in the construction of human buildings. They have vents in the colony which allows air to flow through, cooling when necessary. The ants also have measures in place in terms of ‘flood control’ and sanitation.

Perhaps most impressive of all, is the awesome strength of individual ants. “Ants are extremely strong for their size,” said Killian. “Most ants can lift 20 times their body weight and can drag something 1,700 times their bodyweight, which is equivalent to a human dragging a ship.” Any creature that can do that is certainly worth of study.

First published in Science Spin, issue 42, September-October 2010