Discover the undergraduate startups tackling global challenges

Harnessing sound energy from the London Tube and creating rubber with E. coli. These are just a few of the ideas by this year’s FoNS-MAD finalists.

Four teams have made it through to the finals of the Faculty of Natural Sciences Make-A-Difference ( FoNS-MAD ) competition. An annual entrepreneurial competition open to Imperial College London undergraduate students, FoNS-MAD gives all finalist teams a funding, lab space and a bursary to work on a proof-of-concept over the summer.

FoNS-MAD challenges teams, made up of students from FoNS and other Faculties, to develop low-cost technologies that have a positive impact on society. This year’s finalists will pitch their ideas to an expert panel of judges for the chance to win prizes up to the value of £7000.

The four finalist teams will work over an eight-week placement over the summer to work on a proof-of-concept for their proposed ideas. The finalists this year are:

CO2llect: A hydrogel-based fertiliser to sequester carbon

Overuse of traditional fertilisers poses significant environmental challenges. Fertilisers can often be washed into rivers and lakes from farms, where they cause excessive algae bloom that can damage aquatic ecosystems.

CO2llect, led by Haotong Xiong (Department of Life Sciences), Kas Lauhabutr (Department of Chemical Engineering), Pawat Anekritmongkol and Jason Wang (Department of Bioengineering), aims to address this with a novel hydrogel fertiliser. Motivated by Pawat’s conversations with farmers in Thailand, CO2llect’s aims to develop a hydrogel that can capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slowly release nutrients into the soil.

Our fertiliser targets a bunch of pain points related to agricultural-driven carbon credit. Pawat Anekritmongkol Department of Bioengineering

"Specifically, within Thailand, farmers think carbon credit schemes are interesting, but there’s often not enough incentive for them to opt in," say Pawat, "Our fertiliser targets a bunch of pain points related to agricultural-driven carbon credit."

Their fertiliser’s dual action allows farmers to improve crop yield while providing them with an additional revenue stream through carbon credits, and by matching the nutrient uptake of crops, it avoids the risk of run-off.

Marigold: AI-enhanced audio filtering for misophonia

Misophonia is a condition where specific sounds trigger strong emotional reactions, significantly affecting daily life. It can especially affect those with autism.

Team Marigold, made up of Leo Kreme (Dyson School of Design Engineering), Maria Guerrero Jimenez and Mele Gadzama (Department of Physics), aims to alleviate this problem with innovative audio filtering technology.

Inspired by team member Maria’s sister, who has misophonia, Marigold’s initial idea was noise-cancelling headphones. After technical discussions, they pivoted to creating software that filters trigger noises in online media. Their solution uses machine learning to identify and remove specific sounds from videos and audio.

"In the future, we imagine Marigold being able to tailor a user’s audio experience, allowing users to filter out distressing noises in real-time," said Leo.

Over the summer, the team will develop a machine learning model to suppress trigger noises and integrate it into a Chrome extension for YouTube. They have conducted user research by connecting with online support groups for people with misophonia and plan to collaborate with potential users to fine-tune their technology.

Those interested in participating in testing Marigold’s technology can invited to reach out them personally.

Rubiscube: Sustainable rubber production using synthetic biology

The unsustainable production of natural rubber poses significant environmental and supply chain issues. Traditional rubber extraction from Hevea brasiliensis trees involves extensive land use, deforestation and significant chemical processing, leading to habitat destruction and pollution.

Team Rubiscube aims to tackle this by using synthetic biology to produce natural rubber using E. coli bacteria, cultivated in a bioreactor. The team is made up of Larissa Potapova (Department of Life Sciences), Lucy Dain-Williams, Tianlang Chen and Dawood Khan (Department of Bioengineering).

Team member Dawood recalls a time when he and other neighbourhood children would hit abandoned rubber tires down the street.

One day, you just go, ’Oh why are these tires lying around so much,’ and that leads you realising how much rubber we waste... Dawood Khan Department of Bioengineering

"One day, you just go, ’Oh why are these tires lying around so much,’ and that leads you realising how much rubber we waste and the resources that go into piles of tires that just get thrown away," said Dawood.

Rubiscube aims to genetically modify in E. coli bacteria to produce natural rubber molecules, hoping to offer a scalable and sustainable alternative to current rubber production.

YJJC: Using acoustic metamaterials to convert sound to usable energy

YJJC, a team composed of Alina Zhang (Dyson School of Design Engineering), Ziyao Xiong and Kevin Ni (Department of Physics), tackles the issue of noise pollution in the London Underground by converting sound into electricity using acoustic metamaterials. The team’s fondness of hi-fi systems and their familiarity with acoustics led to the idea of developing an acoustic metamaterial that could amplify and resonate acoustic waves.

Metamaterials are engineered to have properties are not found in nature, and acoustic materials are designed to control and manipulate sound waves.

YJJC plans on converting these sound waves into electricity using piezoelectric discs. Sound waves are essentially mechanical vibrations, which hit the disc and cause it to deform slightly. This deformation creates an electrical charge within the material of the disc that can then be harvested and used as electricity.

Transport for London (TfL) spends approximately £150m a year on track improvements, which includes a dedicated budget of £1m to develop rail noise technology.

Though YJJC anticipates that their acoustic metamaterial may be expensive to create, they hope that the generation of usable energy can help organisations like the TfL offset those costs.

"Its efficiency will be the key challenge if we plan on pitching it as a business," said Alina.

  • Farmers in Sukhothai - Wikimedia Commons/Douglas Perkins
  • Used car tires 20170619 - Wikimedia Commons/Santeri Viinamäki
  • Lancaster Gate tube - Wikimedia Commons/Tom Page