Bolamiri and Le Hoang Vuong Nguyen are two of the eight students who have recently been awarded grants by the USN Centre for Sustainable Transition. These grants are awarded to master’s students working on projects focusing in particular on sustainability.
Nguyen and Bolamiri are both starting their master’s projects in micro- and nanosystem technology.
Nguyen’s project is focusing on the development of a unit that can be used by both professionals and in the home to test for a variety of viruses and bacteria. Her aim is that the unit will be able to replace both the home and PCR tests that we are familiar with from the recent Covid-19 pandemic. It will combine the user-friendliness and accessibility of the former with the precision of the latter and, not least as important, will be less expensive than current tests.
Bolamiri is aiming to develop a sensor that can measure the levels of microplastics in water samples. His master’s project will focus on designing, testing and optimising the sensor by means of computer simulations. His aim is to make use of so-called MEMS technology (microelectromechanical systems) to build a sensor that can be mounted on either ocean vessels or underwater robots. The sensor will make it possible to take samples, process data and send information to a satellite so that the data can be recorded in real time.
Inspired by sustainability
Both students say that right from the start, sustainability has been at the heart of the development of their respective projects. Nguyen explains that her test unit will not only be produced in an environmentally sustainable way, but will also meet many of the WHO’s sustainable development goals.
"First of all, it is relevant to public health", says Nguyen. "I also want to make a test unit that is environmentally sustainable. It shall be biodegradable and contain no toxins. It shall be safe to use for those with no prior knowledge, and automation will make it user-friendly enough to be used both in hospitals and in the home", she says.
It shall also be inexpensive compared with the tests currently on the market.
"We’ll be using 3D printing to manufacture the units and mass production will help to keep the price down", says Nguyen. "Moreover, we don’t need cleanrooms during production, so this will also help to reduce the price", she says.
Bolamiri was also looking to address an environmental issue as part of his master’s project, and he chose to focus on microplastics.
"Today, the news is full of stories about microplastics pollution in all types of ecosystems, and even in the water we drink. One way of mapping the distribution of microplastics is to monitor their occurrence in water samples", he says.
Bolamiri says that he is especially interested in microplastics.
"I read recently that researchers have discovered that whales ingest more than one million microplastic particles each day, and that they are also found in at least 16 marine species, many of which are consumed by humans", he says. "Research is currently underway to find out how this impacts on us, but my main aim is to design a sensor that can help to overcome our existing problems by measuring water quality in the field and recording it in real time", explains Bolamiri.
For her part, Nguyen says that her project is inspired to a great extent by conditions in her homeland in Vietnam.
"I come from a developing country where people are not overly concerned with sustainability, not least because products that emphasise sustainability are commonly more expensive", she says. "However, the way I look at it, a successful product is a good product that not only focuses on sustainability, but is also accessible to everyone on the planet. This is how all kinds of people can have access to high-quality Covid tests, and not only those in the richer nations. In this way, everyone everywhere can be regarded as a potential customer, and no-one will be excluded when the next pandemic comes round. This is what motivates me", she says.
Grants will be well spent
The projects being carried out by Nguyen and Bolamiri were each awarded grants of NOK 20,000, and, as they embark on their work, both students are saying that the money will be well spent.
Nguyen explains that her grant will be used for the purchase of electronic components and biological material for her experiments, as well as 3D printing and other production materials. Moreover, both students are planning to publish scientific articles and attend relevant conferences.
"The grant money will enable me to get started as early as after Christmas, which is earlier than I had first planned", says Nguyen.
Bolamiri’s project, on the other hand, is not about manufacturing a product, but about simulating it using software. However, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t need funds to support his work.
"Software simulation is the most important step in the production process for a sensor of this type because it is much less expensive than building one", says Bolamiri. "The problem simply is that the simulation of such a system requires some very powerful computing hardware. The computer installed at the institute is in great demand and often fully booked, so if I can buy a separate computer to do the job this will have a major impact on my ability to complete the project. This is why I am very grateful for the funds provided by USN, which will enable me to focus on my work."
Great faith in what technology can achieve
Naturally, as engineering students, both Nguyen and Bolamiri have a close affinity with technology. Both are interested in how the technologies that they and others are developing can contribute towards addressing the problems currently facing the planet.
"Human greed leads us to over-exploit the planet’s natural resources", says Bolamiri. "But this is simply unsustainable. At the same time, we can look at the issue from another angle. The problems of course come from our use of technology, but we also have the ability to use advanced technologies to address the consequences of our over-exploitation. And I believe that with good planning and investment in advanced technologies, we can start moving towards a greener and more sustainable future", he explains.
Nguyen is eager to add her view:
"We can see that technology has an impact in many different fields, including agriculture, the health services, cancer treatment and in connection with environmental issues related to nature, soil and water. Technology plays an important role in our lives. Think for a moment; we go to bed at night with our phones by our sides, and they’re still there when we wake up in the morning. As far as my future career in technology is concerned, I want sustainability to be one of the most important components of the products I make. As engineers, we should be concerned about the environment. Engineers stand behind our farmers, doctors and many others, so we have to be concerned about sustainability", she says.
Sustainability in engineering education
As an extension of this, both Nguyen and Bolamiri are keen to see sustainability as an integral part of an engineer’s education.
"It would be good if we learned more about sustainability as part of our engineering studies", says Nguyen. "During this term, while I’ve been working with aspects of sustainability in connection with my project, I’ve also been reading some WHO reports and have taken some issues up with my tutors. However, it would have been better if we were offered a course in sustainability that would enable me to obtain more knowledge and participate in deeper discussions", she says.
Bolamiri agrees with his fellow student, and also believes that the various departments at USN should communicate more on this topic.
"Our institute, for example, could get in touch with both the Centre for Sustainable Transition and other departments and establish a shared project with a common objective. We should be working more closely together", he says.