We live in a changing world. The globe is warming, species are being driven into extinction and our seas are poisoned. The effects of our booming population and industrialisation are hard to determine but have the potential to do catastrophic damage to our planet.
But the uncertainties of the future not only present us with challenges, they also provide us with opportunities. Companies and individuals that can innovate in the face of difficulties will not only flourish, but will be able to benefit our world as a whole.
As is often the case, our greatest natural resource is our people and it is here that we must invest. In 2008, Daniel Burd won first prize at the Canadian Science Fair. He knew that plastic bags are sometimes consumed by wildlife, often with lethal consequences, and wanted to do something to stop this. Though each bag can take up to one hundred thousand years to degrade Daniel realised that there must be something in landfill sites that causes the eventual disintegration. He bred soil bacteria collected from his local rubbish tip and isolated a few species that fed upon strips of polythene. He managed to find a way of breaking plastics down within three months and believes that his findings could be scaled up to an industrial scale. He was only sixteen years old at the time of his discovery.
Competitions and collaborations can be used to not only enhance the education of young people, but to engage them with the contemporary environmental issues of our time. Furthermore, they give them the opportunity to make genuinely useful and creative contributions to business.
Eesha Khare, an 18 year old Californian pupil, was recently awarded $50,000 by the Intel Foundation after developing a tiny super-capacitor that fits inside mobile phone batteries, allowing them to charge within 20-30 seconds. This device not only has the potential to make our lives much more convenient but is environmentally sound as it can be used for up to 10,000 charge-recharge cycles, ten times more than our current rechargeable batteries. Although still at a developmental stage it is considered likely that the device will eventually go into production on an industrial scale.
Small-scale changes can also make a big difference. Pupils and teachers at Polesden Lacey school in Surrey worked together with staff from Unilever to create a ‘Grow Your Own Vegetable’ scheme as part of the Eco-Schools project. Together they cleared an unused area of waste land to make way for a vegetable patch that is now used as part of Science, PHSE, Literacy and Geography lessons as well as by local community groups. The scheme strengthened the community, supplemented the fruit and vegetables available in the school cafeteria and generated valuable publicity for the business partners involved.
The minds of the young are a rich seam that we must mine. It is essential that we inspire the workforce of the future to rise to the challenge of improving our world and equip them with the skills that will enable them to make a difference.
By Simon Watt, Science Communicator