From waste to power

From waste to power

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Lai Ying-kit
Chu Hoi-ming beat 520 contestants nationwide with his innovative waste-to-power recycling invention. It generates far fewer pollutants than traditional fossil fuels. Photo: Lai Ying-kit

A Hong Kong student has won a national science contest, writes Lai Ying-kit

A Form Seven student has come up with an innovative, simple technology that turns waste into energy. It won him the top prize in a prestigious national science contest for secondary students.

Chu Hoi-ming beat 520 contestants from across the country to become champion at the 9th Little Scientists of Tomorrow Reward Scheme last month. He was the first student from Hong Kong to win the championship since the scheme was first launched in 2001.

The 17-year-old from Carmel Pak U Secondary School in Tai Po impressed the judges with an innovative idea for both treating waste and economically generating energy at the same time.

His technology uses chemical solutions to extract cellulose from waste fibres in paper towels, cotton, cardboard boxes and sawdust, and then transforms it into glucose. Glucose can be turned into alcohol that can fuel electricity generation.

'These materials are everywhere and easy to collect,' he said, adding that inspiration first came to him when he saw a rubbish bin full of disposed of paper towels in his school's toilet.

'The tissue had been used for drying hands and they are usually dumped very clean. I thought it would be good if I could put them to some use,' he said.

Hoi-ming said he had already learned at school it was possible to use starch and fibre to generate bio-energy. 'Glucose can be produced from the cellulose in them by adding hydrogen peroxide and sulphuric acid. If you add yeast to the glucose, it produces alcohol.'

The competition, held in Beijing last month, was organised by Hong Kong's H.S. Chau Foundation, the Ministry of Education, and the mainland's Association for Science and Technology. Regarded as the most prestigious scientific contest for young people, the scheme is dubbed the youth Nobel Prize on the mainland. It is open to all Form Six students in Hong Kong and those at the equivalent level on the mainland.

Contestants were grilled about their research and their scientific knowledge by a judging panel of 60 university professors and researchers. Three rounds of screening narrowed the final round down to 100 contestants.

Hoi-ming described the competition as 'heated', as many students had sound science backgrounds and creative ideas.

'I didn't expect to win because so many contestants were so strong,' he said.

He said he needed to do something different to stand out.

'I knew I needed extra creativity and I came up with the idea of alcohol,' he said.

Hoi-ming's approach to thinking outside the box was paying attention to details that most people ignore in daily life. But he had to overcome many failures. For example, sometimes the weather was too cold for his fermentation experiments.

'Several times, I thought about giving up because I couldn't find the ideal conditions for the yeast to work. Fortunately, my teachers, friends and family all gave me great support and I made it.'

The result is an innovation in recycling. His technology does not waste edible food, and alcohol produces far less pollutants when it burns than fossil fuels do.

An avid reader of science books and magazines, Hoi-ming is keen to continue making scientific breakthroughs.

He said he was inspired by Renaissance Italian scientist Galileo Galilei.

'Galileo was a great scientist and his achievements have made a deep impression on me. He persisted in his scientific quest despite strong opposition in his time. Doing this required courage and a strong will.'

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