Young Scientist exhibition: More eco-friendly wind turbine and seaweed biofuel among projects as focus turns to energy

Kilkee students backing kelp as a replacement for fossil fuels, while Leitrim student has designed her own wind turbine

The need for cleaner sources of power prompted Sarah O’Beirne (17) to design her own wind turbine complete with highly efficient wooden blades.

It is the culmination of two years’ work for the fifth-year student at Mohill Community College in Co Leitrim, who is a competitor at the 2023 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.

The turbine is already being deployed in Sarah’s home to charge up battery backup linked to solar panels. It will be used when the sun is not shining.

It is more eco-friendly as wood is used instead of fibreglass which never decomposes, she says. As the prototype is cheap and effective – it can generate 65 volts by hand-turning – she is going to send turbines to people living in Ivory Coast, who expressed an interest after seeing details of her design on Facebook.


This year, energy is a dominant theme at the exhibition in the RDS in Dublin, with projects ranging from how to generate more renewables to using natural materials to generate fossil fuel alternatives.

Sarah got philanthropic funding to acquire a CNC machine. Much like a 3D printer, it enables precise production of wooden blades rather than hand-carved versions. She uses recycled Japanese larch.

“Using wood blades is not new; what is unique is the precision with very accurate production of blades,” she said. Their effectiveness has been confirmed by wave analysis, which she submitted with her project.

Demand for wind energy, however, can be controversial, with concern about obstruction of views and safety, according to Shane O’Neill of Coláiste Pobail Osraí in Kilkenny. In response, with third-year colleagues Cate Hutton and Daran Yalnazov, he designed a collapsible wind turbine for use near private houses.

It still generates power at low levels, compared to fixed higher-level turbines, which cannot be used when wind levels go above certain levels. They predict their turbine will last up to 50 years compared to the usual 20-30 years because they will be less battered by high wind speeds.

Fifth-year students from St Joseph’s Community College in Kilkee, Co Clare have produced a biofuel from seaweed, which they hope will be used as a fossil fuel replacement, while every component from their hydrothermal liquefaction process serves a useful purpose.

Caragh Killeen, Alish Marrinan and Cian McInerney are working with sugar kelp, a species washed up on shores, which grows quickly. They named their fuel “kelpoleum”.

“It is waste on the beach. It smells and is an eyesore. We make it useful,” Caragh explained. The kelp is pre-treated with caustic soda and subjected to high pressure and heat. Initial tests conducted with the University of Limerick indicated the intensity was insufficient. So they bought a €105 autoclave on Amazon and acquired an air fryer.

This yielded a biofuel on the top, an aqueous layer in the middle and solid residue, Alish said. Further investigation will confirm the biofuel’s suitability for use in a car. It will have to be diluted with 5 per cent diesel as it so acidic, but the combination generates a lot less carbon emissions.

The solid residue can be used as a low-emission peat for burning, while the aqueous layer is ideal for use in anaerobic digesters, Cian said. The trio have no doubt about Kelpoleum’s potential.

Meanwhile, students from Coláiste Iognáid in Galway applied “Formula 1 thinking” to see if a deposit return scheme (DRS) for plastic bottles and aluminium cans could be monetised in a school setting.

Transition year students Rían Kennedy, Reuben Florisson and Andrew Gordon claim their “drive to recycle” approach is more ambitious than the Government’s DRS. They set up the equivalent of a reverse vending machine (RVM) in their school cafeteria and achieved a 410 per cent increase in plastic recycling of clean, uncrushed bottles with a barcode over 10 days.

They acknowledge that even with 700 pupils an RVM would not be commercially viable, Reuben said, but “a manual donation point” would be an effective equivalent and generate significant funding for the school. Their “place and leave” approach would generate €1,700 a year if just 10 per cent of students provided one bottle a day.

By heightening awareness, the profits would be substantially increased, their analysis concludes. But DRS awareness is poor, they conclude, and there is a need to change from the norm of recycling crushed bottles with too many restrictions based on size and type of plastic.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times