The green winds of change

11th August 2006 at 01:00
If you're 14 and mad keen on technical stuff, then this huge lab is about as good as it gets. It's like Q's laboratory in the Bond films.

There's a slightly manic air of urgency among the people buzzing about.

Some are working on waist-high tubes, binding them together with gaffer tape. Others are high up on a walkway, which allows them access to test the tube contraptions in a long water tank with a wave simulator. And others are working out calculations in notebooks.

They are all taking part in the Smallpeice Trust Energy Challenge 2006 at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. Twenty-two pupils from across the UK have been divided into teams to work on renewable energy wind and wave projects. Three groups with the tubes compete to design and make a prototype of a shoreline oscillating water column, and two groups are battling to design a wind turbine, testing their prototypes using a wind tunnel in another lab next door.

It's about as true to real life as possible - every material used has a cost and the winning prototypes will be those that produce the cheapest electricity. And it's a race against time, since the challenge has a packed four-day schedule.

Fifteen-year-old Mark McLeod from Peebles High is watching how another team is faring with their trial in the water tank. He is here because he is interested in renewable energy and solving the problem of global warming.

"It's going to have to be done and I want to be one of the people that does it," he says.

Team-mate Kirsten Cumming from Fernhill School, an independent school in Glasgow's Burnside area, is here on a fact-finding mission. "I'm really interested in sound engineering and I really enjoy science. I wanted to open my mind here to other fields I might be interested in," she says.

Beside her, Kirsty McLeish has landed the role of number cruncher. "The competition is to find out how much energy you can get for a pound,"

14-year old Kirsty, from Cardinal Newman High in Bellshill, says.

Supervising their efforts is Alan Owen, a renewable energy engineer at Robert Gordon who knows all about the realities of cost-effective science.

Mr Owen developed a prototype self-securing tidal structure, the Sea Snail, which attracted international attention following trials last year and is under evaluation. It can carry a variety of payloads, including instrumentation and turbines.

"We give them what is, on the face of it, a relatively straightforward task, but by the time they start to work on it, it gets more and more detailed," he says.

The teams will give a presentation on their final results. "You put a tube in water, you've got waves coming along, and the level of the water in the tube will rise up and down," George Robertson from Perth Academy says.

"That, in turn, pushes air out of the top of the tube and sucks it back in again, and there's a design at the top so that it will turn the wind turbine and that in turn powers the generator."

The Smallpeice Trust is an independent educational charity, which promotes engineering to young people of all abilities throughout the UK. It was set up before his death by self-taught engineer Cosby Smallpeice, inventor of the Smallpeice Lathe, and this year the trust will run 60 residential courses similar to this one in Aberdeen.

As well as materials, sponsors such as Shell and Lloyd's Register also second their own young staff engineers, scientists and technologists, who act as team leaders and advisers for school groups.

Dr Stephanie Rigby from Robert Gordon's school of engineering said: "It's giving them an opportunity to see how an idea, something that starts as just a spark, becomes something real and working."

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