Birmingham students win Davidson Inventors Challenge for ‘forever chemical’ removal process

Article by Amanda Jasi

TEAM Breaking Bonds, a group of Year 11 students from King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Girls, has won this year’s Davidson Inventors Challenge for developing a process to remove per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from water.

Launched by the UK’s University of Cambridge in 2020, the Davidson Inventors Challenge encourages Year 11 and 12 students to use STEM skills to develop innovative solutions that address one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Breaking Bonds targeted UN SDG 6, clean water and sanitation, proposing a five-step water treatment solution for managing PFAS contamination.

A member of the Birmingham-based team said: “The originality of our solution lies in the creativity and ingenuity with which we combine existing techniques, creating not a physical product, but unique methodology.”

The team’s removal method begins with the quantification of PFAS in water using combustion ion chromatography, which can be used to determine adsorbable organic fluorine (AOF) in aqueous samples. Once the PFAS is quantified, the process would then require granular activated carbon (GAC) nanoparticles to adsorb PFAS. The PFAS-GAC compounds would be removed from water using microfiltration.

In the fourth stage of the process, GAC would be regenerated by removing PFAS via thermal desorption. And finally, the removed PFAS would be degraded using ball milling.

Members of Breaking Bonds were Rinsola Alatise, Tzu-Wei Liao, Navya Pillai, Anviti Venkateshwaran, and Bhumika Talwar. Along with a certificate, the group won £300 (US$381) for their innovative solution. Their award was announced at a Teams-hosted finalists’ event on 21 June.

Breaking Bonds was among four teams that presented during the webinar, including Team EGESA, a Year 12 team from the Northampton School for Boys; the Lab Techs, a group of Year 12s from Twycross House School in Atherstone; and Team Mozzo, Year 12 students from Bishop’s Stortford College.

The online event also included a talk from IChemE president Mark Apsey, who said: “Tackling the global challenges as defined by the UN Sustainable Development Goals upon which you built your projects and submissions has never really been more important.”

He went on: “Chemical engineering really is at the heart of this transition and our discipline works across all of the industries and products and things that we take for granted.

“Somewhere along the line, a chemical engineer has been involved designing it, operating it, developing it and we've got a huge, huge and unique opportunity to transform those systems for the future.”

Apsey concluded: “I hope you've been inspired to think about choosing chemical engineering as a degree and a career going forward.”

Peter Davidson, a chartered chemical engineer and Fellow of IChemE, also spoke at the event about his late father John Davidson, whom the challenge is named for.

John Davidson, who was an Emeritus Professor at Cambridge, died in December 2019. He is often referred to as the father of fluidisation and served as president of IChemE from 1970–1971. In 2016, IChemE named a medal after him to recognise his inspirational role to young engineers.

The annual, UK-wide Davidson Inventors Challenge is hosted by the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology in collaboration with IChemE and the Association of Science, and Technology & Innovation (ASTI) in Malaysia.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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