From spider web to solving water

From spider web to solving water

Meet our innovation challenge high school winners.

It started with a spider web and ended with impressive new insights on solving a growing global water challenge: how to produce Green Hydrogen with a smaller water footprint. This year’s high school winners of the Xylem Global Student Innovation Challenge – Team Waste2H from Porto, Portugal – has an exciting story to tell about pursuing bold ideas and advancing the world’s knowledge about sustainability… all while still in their teens.

The challenge

This year’s competition included four challenge statements: assessing the water impact of Green Hydrogen, turning awareness of water challenges into action, using data science to prevent water pollution, and advancing the water-energy-emissions nexus in buildings. This was the first time the challenge took on the issue of Green Hydrogen. As the world races to minimize dependence on fossil fuels, Green Hydrogen produced via electrolysis is poised to grow quickly. However, because the process uses significant amounts of water, there’s growing concern about the impact for water-stressed regions.

The Xylem Global Student Innovation Challenge asked students to assess the potential effect of increasing Green Hydrogen use on the water chain by analyzing publicly available data.

“Since Green Hydrogen requires a lot of water, we want to understand the impact on the water sector and our customers and their communities. This is a tough question even for researchers and the water industry, and we wanted to engage with younger generations to encourage their ideas,” said Chiara Lucia Tregnago, member of the Engineering Leadership Development Program (currently in Product Management) and head of the 2023 Xylem Ignite Global Student Innovation Challenge. “What’s really exciting about the Waste2H team is they went far beyond our ‘ask’ for analysis and came back with solid research and science.”

The Waste2H team

Waste2H’s team of high school seniors included (from left to right) Gustavo Lobo, Maria Ribas, Maria Leonor Vales, Leonor Costa, and Mário Onofre.

The group first came together to work on an entirely different challenge – how to create synthetic spider webs from bacteria – for a different competition. Mário and Gustavo, who are very interested in engineering, math, and marketing, asked Maria, Maria Leonor and Leonor, who are passionate about science and biology, to round out their team.

During the group’s research, they learned that the same bacteria they’d been working with to make spider webs could also produce hydrogen. Through a teacher at their school, they heard about the Xylem Global Student Innovation Challenge and the challenge statement around Green Hydrogen, so they decided to enter the competition

“Hydrogen is a big thing now. It’s probably one of the most promising ecological solutions of the future,” said Mário.

“We were already doing this other project, but we saw your site and the challenge and really loved the concept, so we decided to go for it,” added Maria.

Waste2H’s approach

The Waste2H team’s idea was to use the bacteria Rhodovulum sulfidophilum to produce hydrogen in a homemade bioreactor with artificial seawater in anaerobic conditions (without oxygen). Their ambitious goal? To add to the world’s body of knowledge about anaerobic fermentation and how it can reduce the water footprint needed to create hydrogen. While they faced many setbacks over their months of work, they refused to give up.

“The achievement we’re most proud of in this project was the homemade bioreactor that we were able to make,” said Maria Leonor. “When we started, we knew how to multiply the bacteria but we didn’t know how we could capture the hydrogen and prove to you that we did actually produce hydrogen. We were able to do this with the bioreactor we developed together.”

Going forward, the group hopes to explore using wastewater from a wastewater treatment plant – instead of seawater – to include the circular economy and add another dimension of sustainability to their project.

“We are looking to evolve and optimize our approach,” said Mário. “We’re just getting started.” Learn more about their project here.

What’s next?

The Waste2H team is excited to continue their work together as part of Xylem’s Innovator Incubator Program, which helps students take their projects further with Xylem mentorship. They’re also looking forward to continuing their education in sustainability-related fields.

“Environmental engineering is the future of society,” said Leonor. “It will help the world a lot, and I want to be a part of it.”

“I had different ideas for my future in the beginning of the year,” said Maria Leonor. “This project, and the sustainability side of it, helped me understand what I like and what I would like to do in the future. It really helped zero in on either becoming a bioengineer or an environmental engineer. There are so many possibilities with those two areas, and I think it will be really great to play a role in the future of the world and to help the world.”

Biggest learnings from the competition

“The competition really changed my point of view on sustainability, what it’s like to work in this area and why careers in sustainability are so important.

It’s talked about, but not enough yet. Like chemical engineering – we really need to start explaining how important this field is for the future, for us humans and for the planet,” said Maria who wants to major in chemical engineering.

“My principal learning from the making of this project, is that you always have time to do and perfect what you really want to achieve. You just need to talk to your inner self, then calmly analyze what’s missing or not, or what’s yet to do or not. After that, you envision, plan how to resolve your concerns, and start taking action step by step to solve them,” said Gustavo.

“I would definitely recommend the challenge to other students,” said Mário. “You really have to have perseverance because you run into many obstacles. And you have to really like what you are doing. What kept me going was knowing how important our area of focus was. If we can solve hydrogen, we can change the world.”

About the Xylem Global Student Innovation Challenge

More than 1,000 students from 78 countries took part in the challenge earlier this year. The winning teams, recognized at a virtual ceremony in June, shared a $20,000 prize pool and a place in Xylem’s Ignite Innovation Incubator. The initiative is part of Xylem’s global youth program Xylem Ignite, which focuses on inspiring and encouraging young people to focus their talents on solving water.

As part of our commitment to youth, Xylem also sponsors the Stockholm Junior Water Prize. Learn more about the student competition and how you can vote for one of this year’s winners here.