Feature Story                                                               Monday, May 29, 2017


Dissolving the Competition

How two Surrey students may have solved one of NASA's biggest hurdles in colonizing the Red Planet

Voice intro, Dick Wilson, special advisor to the Youth Can Innovate Awards/Photos by Chrystal Pelletier, Regina


Surrey Grade 11 students Charles Wang (l) and Spencer Zezulka (r) with Gwyn Morgan and Patricia Trottier, were awarded $8,000 in the Youth Can Innovate Awards. Below, their incredible device dubbed "Bertha".


ll aboard! Next stop Mars.  What began in the basement as a school project, could be sitting outside a living module on Mars in the not too distant future.


But no water, no go. However,  two grade 11 Surrey students, Charles Wang and Spencer Zezulka, believe their brilliant device dubbed "Bertha", will be able to make water from nothing. Call them Gods of Engineering.


The device extracts water from the paper thin atmosphere on the Red Planet. If it works well enough for NASA, these two students are destined for stardom.


It looks like part R2D2 and part distillery, but it could solve a problem NASA's been wrestling with for decades – putting something on Mars that could extract water easier and faster than current models.


But before the space agency can even breathe a word about colonizing the planet, they'd need H20 – and lots of it. Being able to produce it there would be the equivalent Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone. "Come here Watson, I have something to tell you about Mars."


At $25,000 a kilo, it's expensive and impossible to launch enough rockets to space with water for humans to make the trip and back. Ask and Elon Musk.

The ice in the frozen wasteland at the poles on Mars is as hard as rock. Even once it's melted, it's too briny to use. 


Wang and Zuzukla's device is lighter, less complicated, and recovers more water than the current models being developed. Starbucks anyone?


Flanking Gwyn Morgan and Patricia Trottier (c), are the 2017 recipients


But they aren't the only geniuses picking up a Youth Can Innovate award. Another, BC grade 9 student Nattan Telmer and his device that could set UBC marine biologists on their heels. Yimeng Li's system that removes  stream-killers such as copper and other heavy metals, for example mining runoffs from tailings piles, will help save the planet in a big way. Read on to find out more.


Finalists with three projects from the Vancouver, South Fraser, and Vancouver Island Regional Science Fairs earned more than $9,500 in Youth Can Innovate awards for their year-long efforts to investigate societal problems and develop innovative solutions through Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in the 56th Canada-Wide Science Fair, held this year on the University of Regina campus.

The Youth Can Innovate Awards are sponsored by the Calgary-based Gwyn Morgan & Patricia Trottier Foundation.

“One of the key goals of our Foundation is to encourage and support Canadian students in STEM,” said Gwyn Morgan in announcing the inaugural winners of the 2017 Youth Can Innovate Awards. “We want to champion Canada’s young innovators and shine a light on their work by encouraging them and providing financial support. They’re Canada’s future,” said Patricia Trottier.

More than 440 STEM students from schools across Canada presented 390 projects. The three British Columbia projects who won the Youth Can Innovate Awards are:


The Birth of Bertha

Grade 11 students Charles Wang, and Spencer Zezulka are sharing one of four top Youth Can Innovate Senior category cash awards ($8,000). They have returned to the national competition representing the South Fraser Regional Science Fair. Wang, from Semiahmoo Secondary School, and Zezulka, from Elgin Park Secondary School, both in Surrey, developed a prototype for solar-powered production of clean fuel by the fermentation of a bacteria Clostridium acetobutylicum.


“The need for a source of clean energy is pervasive. Our project seeks to use biosystemic manipulation of a photosynthetic biomass source and a metabolizing agent to produce carbon-neutral fuel,” the team explained. With further refinement to their initial research, Wang and Zezulka believe possible applications could include atmospheric cleansing by sequestration of carbon dioxide, or even the production of return fuel for future travel to Mars.


Surrey students Charles Wang and Spencer Zezulka were happy with their results at the the 2017 Candian Science Fair.


Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, discovered the process of Acetone Butanol Ethanol (ABE) fermentation carried out by this type of bacteria. The pair also found that a group at the University of California Berkeley discovered a catalyst that can synthesize various hydrocarbons, using these three components. Despite the benefits of producing useable biofuel and other hydrocarbons, the system is expensive to develop and maintain. A key issue is that C. acetobutylicum is an obligate anaerobe so it cannot survive when exposed to oxygen; a special chamber is required to grow the bacteria in a low oxygen environment, which can be expensive to construct and maintain.


The pair suggests that their technique could be a viable method for hydrocarbon production on Mars where the atmosphere contains little oxygen, perfect for the growth of C. acetobutlyicum without the need for a specialized chamber. They identified that the need for a carbon source is another contributor to the high maintenance cost and investigated the use of algae as a carbon source to drive the fermentation process. Algae are fast-growing, resilient and a renewable carbon source, using the sun’s energy to produce sugars.


This means that the system is essentially a solar-powered system. The two constructed a device that they called “Big Bertha,” which facilitates algae growth, bacterial growth (by mimicking Mars’ environment) and the fermentation process. They demonstrated the effectiveness of the device to produce clean biofuel and hope to improve yields with future optimizations. The pair believe their invention could one day be integral to a future mission to colonize Mars


Mining Clean Water

Yimeng Li, a Grade 9 student at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Vancouver won a Gold medal and a $750 Intermediate Youth Can Innovate Award. She enjoys working in many fields of applied science such as electricity, chemistry, and microbiology – and then integrating these fields to create new innovations.


After learning about the increase in copper discharge as a result of improperly treated industrial wastewater, she thought that it would be interesting to create an inexpensive, economical, and environmentally-friendly system that can remove metal ions without any energy or resource input.


She built a self-sustaining system capable of removing metal pollutants, powered only by yeast. “I enjoy converting even the simplest concepts to applications in our growing society. I studied many aspects of the three fields, as well as circuit design and programming to build a lot of the equipment used in my research, including incubators, and drip-feed systems,” explained Li.


Her project involved designing a circuit to harness electrons produced during the respiration of microbes to power the cathodic reduction reaction of copper ions, meaning the copper ions were able to gain the electrons produced by the microbes. Through a series of catholyte measurements indicative of copper concentrations, evidence of copper recovery was successfully demonstrated, without an external energy source.


Sea Lion Conservation Device

Nattan Telmer, a trilingual grade 9 student at Arbutus Global Middle School in Victoria, received one of the four $750 Intermediate Youth Can Innovate awards. His project uses thermal electric generator (TEG) technology to extend the operational life of tracking sensors that provide key information about sea lion life history, which is needed for conservation efforts, as sea lions have been listed as an endangered species.


The TEGs exploit the temperature differential between a sea lion’s body and the surrounding air or water to power the sensors indefinitely. The technology continuously tops up the charge of a sea lion tracker, with one side heated by the sea lion’s warmth and the other side cooled by marine waters. In these conditions, the TEG apparatus can generate twice the energy consumed by a commercially available tracker, potentially extending operational life indefinitely. Telmer notes that this technology could help improve our understanding of the decline in sea lion populations. Telmer competes in soccer, racquet sports and sailing.


Youth Can Innovate awards, with a total cash value of $41,000, are offered to students competing at Canada’s annual national science fair.  This year, 242 finalists at the junior, intermediate and senior levels nominated their projects for evaluation.  The 2017 recipients were selected by Canada-Wide Science Fair judges. 


For information about Youth Can Innovate and profiles of 2017, please visit youthcaninnovate.ca


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About The Gwyn Morgan & Patricia Trottier Foundation: The Gwyn Morgan & Patricia Trottier Foundation is a family foundation based in Calgary, Alberta. Established in 2005, it focuses on education, wellness initiatives and leadership development. In education, the Foundation gives priority to initiatives that encourage and support students pursuing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers.


The Foundation’s STEM support currently includes 20 recently established Youth Can Innovate awards, which are given annually to 16 innovative projects at the Canada-Wide Science Fair; Camosun College’s Empowering Women In Trades Program; the Gwyn Morgan Be An Engineer bursaries awarded annually at 15 Canadian universities and the Gwyn Morgan Centennial Bursary.



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