Students at work during the Hydrogen Hack competition

Hydrogen Hack competition introduces students to fuel cell technology

Image credit: Arcola Energy

School children from across the UK came together to compete in the inaugural Hydrogen Hack engineering challenge last week, where they were tasked with using hydrogen fuels cells, Raspberry Pi and Arduino computers to create something new using everyday objects.

The competition, which took place over a week of heats across the UK, came to a culmination last Saturday, with the grand final held at Ravensbourne College in London. Roughly 100 young people took part in the event, aged between eight and 18, putting their creativity and skills to the test as they reengineered gadgets, appliances and toys.

The contestants were allowed to use any resources available, which alongside the mini computers, included everything from Meccano to 3D printers.

The aim of the event, developed by Arcola Energy, was to raise awareness of hydrogen fuel cell technology amongst school children, with the hope that some will be inspired to go on to study engineering and potentially end up working in the green energy sector.

To aid this, some of the event’s sponsors brought along examples of the technology to the heats, including the Toyota Mirai, which is the world’s first production hydrogen fuel cell powered saloon car.

“The Hydrogen Hack is a creative, innovative and fun way for young people to learn more about renewable energy, hydrogen and fuel cells,” says Arcola Energy’s managing director Dr Ben Todd. “At this stage we find that young people have a good awareness of carbon-driven climate change and the benefits of cleaner energy generation approaches, such as renewables. Awareness of hydrogen as a viable energy source is low by comparison, but growing steadily.”

The Hydrogen Hack is the latest project in Arcola’s long-running, not-for-profit STEM education programme, which includes its Schools Hydrogen Challenge programme.

“In this existing programme, groups of learners are challenged to design, build and test hydrogen-powered vehicles in just 90 minutes, using a prepared kit of various electrical and Lego parts and a miniature hydrogen fuel cell,” says Todd. “This has already reached 25,000 children from Aberdeen to Abu Dhabi.

“With the Hydrogen Hack, there is no restriction on what young people can create, other than their imaginations. We plan to make this an annual event, establishing it as a core part of the UK’s STEM education calendar,” he enthuses.

The Hydrogen Hack grand final was hosted by TV personality Kevin Fong, known as an expert on space medicine and a presenter on the BBC show Horizon.

Prizes included the Best Proof of Concept award, which went to Tejas Mengle (aged eight), Manes Mengle (aged 11) and Sarina Shah (aged 11) from Stanmore. Their objective was to create something that could help during a disaster scenario, and they came up with the idea of a fire truck with an onboard filter that could clean dirty water, making it drinkable.

The main prize, the Best in Show award, went to 13-year-old Chris Glazier and his partner Joseph Ward, aged 12, for their creation entitled the Sentientia Ferula. This is a sensing cane for blind people, which uses an ultrasound sensor and audio and vibration signals to alert users of potential risks.

“Originally we came up with the idea of a self-driving mobility scooter for blind people, where the user could set their destination and the scooter would use sensors to move around things,” Joseph explains. “However, we thought that might be too big for the five days we had and so we decided to develop a cane.

“We worked out we’d need an input, a processing engine and an output, and decided to use an ultrasound sensor, and a micro:bit to receive and then send the information to our outputs. We used it a bit like a car sensor, with the headphones emitting beeps quicker and louder as things get closer and my old electric toothbrush to emit vibrations in the same kind of way.”

Chris goes on to explain how they broke down the work.

“We didn't know really what to expect beforehand, so on the first morning we came up with a range of ideas and went from there. During that first day we planned our project and on the second we started putting the cane together, hacking the toothbrush and doing the coding.

“The micro:bit was easy to programme and suited this project and the toothbrush was a good object to create vibration. I did the coding because I'd done some before and Joseph mapped out the circuits. By the fourth day, we had finished it and began testing. We spent the final day testing and preparing our presentation.”

“Learning more about how things work and then testing them out ourselves was the most exciting part,” Chris continues. “I learnt a lot about electronics and coding thanks to the Hack and also how to put them all together in one system. Making a presentation was also something totally new to me,” he notes.

“This competition has got me into technology even more – I only really started doing ‘proper’ engineering and technology from last September when I went up to secondary school,” Joseph continues. “I really like inventing things, you can have so many ideas and your imagination is the limit!”

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