Three minutes was all it took for Hlumelo Marepula’s pitch to blow the judges away at the recent inaugural Falling Walls Lab in Cape Town. Now the final-year civil engineering student has a chance to repeat that performance at the global finals in Berlin this November.
Falling Walls Lab is an international forum for outstanding young innovators and creative thinkers in all fields, whether science, technology or medicine. The link is to the Berlin Wall, which fell in 1989 after having separated East and West Berlin for nearly 28 years.
The intention is to create a platform for young innovators and bring their “breaking walls” ideas to the public.
Each year, academic institutions are invited to host their own Falling Walls Lab to showcase their region’s most innovative minds. Thanks to funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, South Africa was able to host its first lab, in Cape Town. The three top spots at the event all went to students from UCT.
The international network of Falling Walls Labs includes renowned academic institutions from more than 60 countries. Stanford University, ETH Zurich and the University of Tokyo are some of the universities that have participated in the programme.
Marepula is among 100 participants who will compete for this year’s title. They will gather in Berlin to present their three-minute pitches to an audience of peers, a high-calibre jury of experts from academia and business, and the public.
Last year’s winner was Ahmed Ghazi of the University of Rochester with his presentation on “Breaking the Wall of Surgical Errors”. Ghazi developed 3D-printed injection moulds to create intricate, realistic human organs. These models can be used by doctors to rehearse surgeries and reduce surgical error.
For Marepula, it all started with human “waste”.
She is a fourth-year research student in Dr Dyllon Randall’s group which has conducted highly innovative work on resource recovery from waste waters, particularly urine.
Her idea, “Breaking the Wall of Synthetic Urea Production”, has huge implications for food security, sustainable energy production and global warming mitigation.
“This will address multiple sustainable development goals, including responsible consumption and production, and sustainable cities.”
“Urea is one of the biggest sources of fertiliser in the world and is currently being produced using the Haber-Bosch process, which consumes a significant amount of the world’s energy,” she explained.
“My solution is to mitigate the detrimental effects of this process on our planet and use urine to produce urea. This will address multiple sustainable development goals, including responsible consumption and production, and sustainable cities.”
Her main challenge in front of the local judges was breaking down complex chemistry into simple terms and language.
“I was tempted to show them chemical equations and complicated processes, but Dyllon, my supervisor, advised me to keep it as simple as possible. I think that counted in my favour,” she said.
Sustainability, a watchword for Randall’s group, is key to her work.
“I love the idea of rethinking waste, such as our urine, as a resource that can be recovered to produce something valuable to us – like food. And I’m excited to be a part of creating a sustainable world for future generations.”
Participation in Falling Walls Lab Cape Town has brought other benefits.
“I gained way more knowledge on my research topic,” said Marepula.
“It put everything into context and made me excited to continue my research. I also realised that perhaps this is a field I’d like to pursue one day. And of course, I’ve gained a trip to Berlin!”
As a bonus, all 100 finalists win a ticket to attend the annual Falling Walls Conference where they meet the world’s movers and shakers in science, business and policymaking. The three winners of the Lab Finale in Berlin are awarded the Falling Walls Young Innovator of the Year title and prize money, and get to pitch their idea again – on the grand stage of the Falling Walls Conference.
Trio of winners
Marepula was one of three students from Randall’s group who participated in the Cape Town Falling Walls Lab, all doing urine-related research. Civil engineering master’s candidate Vukheta Mukhari was placed third. His proposal explained how the nutrients in urine can be recovered to make fertiliser as well as sustainable building materials using microbiological processes.
“Building materials, currently used in large volumes, are polluting our water bodies and global environment,” he said.
“The construction industry is responsible for 40% of waste production and one-third of carbon emissions.
“This is the same construction industry that will be building infrastructure to accommodate for the three billion in population increase by 2030 – and for rapid urbanisation. That’s why I propose looking into more sustainable building material such as the bio-solids we’re making from urine, which have a light footprint on our environment.”
“In the end, we'll be putting the tools of easy, small-scale mining into the hands of people who might not have access to training and education.”
UCT senior chemical engineering student Resoketswe Manenzhe (Centre for Minerals Research) was second with a project to reprocess mine water: “Breaking the Wall of Mine Waste Retreatment”.
“In reprocessing mine waste, we have three primary objectives: to recover residual valuable minerals, to develop a small-scale process that doesn’t require extensive technical skills, and to minimise the negative impact of mine wastes on the environment,” she explained.
“There was a risk of oversimplifying the idea, or not having enough time to fully explain it. It might have been easier if I [had] presented to an expert audience since I wouldn’t need to explain some fundamental principles of my field.
“In the end, we’ll be putting the tools of easy, small-scale mining into the hands of people who might not have access to training and education.”
She said the pitch left her with a valuable insight: “I now know what I need to polish for my PhD proposal!”
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