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Seaweed powered solar cell tops regional science fair award

Claremont student’s exoskeleton hand wins third
Grade 9 students Zoe Dallas and Katie Timms from St. Margaret’s School deconstructed the standard market Epipen by Mylan. They have a goal of creating a newer, cheaper version of a needle that can apply a dose of ephedrine to someone in anaphylactic shock. Travis Paterson/Black Press

Wynona the head chicken from Sebastian Dunn-Krahn’s backyard has no idea she’s at the heart of a science project.

And, for every day-old hotdog bun she gets to eat when she navigates the maze Dunn-Krahn created for this year’s science project, she likely doesn’t care.

Dunn-Krahn and fellow Frank Hobbs elementary Grade 5 student Sophia Eiley studied the chickens’ pack behaviour for their entry into this year’s Vancouver Island Regional Science Fair. They were two of 139 students competing in VIRSF from Grades 4 to 12.

“For Wynona and [some] of the chickens the time it took to navigate the maze gradually decreased,” said Dunn-Krahn, who was fifth at last year’s VIRSF with a project that tracked the amount of eggs chickens laid in more and less daylight (the egg output increased with longer days).

“What we predicted was that the chickens [including Wynona] at the top of the pecking order [from his coop of five] would be the quickest to get through the maze,” Dunn-Krahn said. “The [leaders] are generally bigger and it’s their responsibility to find food for the other chickens, but we don’t know what the motivation is.”

You can tell the chickens at the bottom of the pecking order because they’ll be missing feathers that have been pecked right off, Dunn-Krahn added. The team tested day-old hotdog buns in a pre-maze control with other chicken treats to see which would most likely draw the chickens into the labyrinth of Dunn-Krahn’s backyard.

Among the many impressive projects at this year’s VIRSF was that of Grade 10 student Annie Mcleod of Glenlyon Norfolk School, who won first overall for her dye-sensitive solar cells using an ingredient she foraged from the shores of her Oak Bay neighbourhood beach.

Dye-sensitive solar cells can create energy without using silicon, and McLeod wanted to know if she could build one using fucoxanthin, a carotenoid found in brown seaweeds. The idea is to find power from a cheap, renewable resource.

“I actually found it worked best from the common rockweed, which is very sustainable because it grows here and all over the world,” said McLeod, who extracted the carotenoid using a titanium dioxide suspension she mixed herself. “If you cut the leaves off rockweed it will grow back.”

Two stalls down from McLeod stood Nicolas Fedrigo, a Grade 10 student at Claremont secondary who finished third overall for building a robotic hand sensor that triggers the same functions in an exoskeleton hand.

“This is to inspire people who are rehabilitating from stroke,” Fedrigo said. “My grandfather had a stroke before he died, and in talking to many therapists I learned the hardest part of a stroke is the tedious process of the recovery exercises.”

Fedrigo dove into robotics to build both the hand sensor and the metal hand that it manipulates. The research dates right back to his 2016 VIRSF project, a hand-cooling glove that improves athletic performance.

One room over was Melody Cheng, one of four GNS students to finish in the top seven, who took second overall for her work studying the “fourth state” of water besides liquid, gas or solid.

The concept was proposed in a 2016 journal by a group of physicists led by Oxford University’s Dr. Laura Maestro that water could have a second liquid state. Water is unlike any other substance as it can move between all three states (solid, liquid and gas) within 100 degrees Celsius.

Somewhere between freezing and boiling, Cheng says, water stays together but something not previously recognized is happening.

“Between 40 and 60 degrees Celsius, the water molecules arrange differently [than above and below that temperature],” Cheng said. “It’s still a hypothesis.”

Next to Cheng on Monday sat Katie Timms and Zoë Dallas, Grade 9 students at St. Margeret’s School.

The two are on a ‘pharmacy hacking’ mission to build a better solution to the high-priced Epipen, for which only one brand is available in Canada, and that’s through Mylan, which has hiked the retail cost over the past decade.

“There are pharmacy hackers who’ve created a similar product that costs only $30,” Dallas said. “There’s no patent on the epinephrine that goes in the solution. And we can’t understand why an Epipen has three millilitres of solution when only 0.3 are used [and needed].”

Timms knows the cost of the Epipen, as she has to keep one handy. She has severe egg and dairy allergies and lives with the threat of anaphylactic shock.

“We hope to one day bring something like this and other projects to market,” Timms said.

Fourth place went Ella Chan of GNS for her research on oral infections. Fifth place went to Yassin Guitouni of Mount Douglas secondary for harnessing biomechanical energy with a knee brace. Sixth place went to Anastasia Castro of GNS for research on microplastic ocean pollution. Seventh place went to Nattan Telmer of Mount Douglas for extending the life of marine mammal trackers by powering them with thermoelectric generators.

The top seven places at VIRSF now advance to the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Regina, Sask. in May. They’ll join 500 students from across the country for a week of competition and science education. Their travel and accommodation is covered by the Society for the Advancement of Young Scientists in Victoria, a non-profit society that organizes VIRSF.

Sebastian Dunn-Krahn, a Grade 5 student at Frank Hobbs elementary, shows a Lego model of the chicken maze he built with classmate Sophia Eiley. The two established that, as expected, the chickens higher in the pecking order were most likely to navigate the maze and locate the food. Travis Paterson/News Staff
St. Margaret’s School Grade 6 student and Lake Hill Soccer player Charlotte Poore wanted to know if soccer balls travel further on the local artificial turf she plays on. In a controlled test an Umbro brand soccer ball travelled 173.2 inches on the Lake Hill artificial soccer turf but only 80.45 inches on its natural grass soccer pitch. The results were similar for Matrix (169 to 85) and Alpha (143.5 to 88.5) brand balls. (Travis Paterson/Black Press)