Competition Sparks Sustainability Solutions

Students and faculty pivoted to move the Born Global competition online

By Liz Sheeley

Last fall, the College of Engineering launched a competition aimed at bringing an interdisciplinary approach to solving real-world sustainability problems, particularly focused on carbon recycling processes and materials. Not only did the Born Global Competition for Innovation in Sustainability succeed in producing innovative solutions, it had to do so when COVID-19 forced everyone into remote mode in the middle of the project.

Sponsored by the Born Global Foundation, the competition aimed to change the way students think about renewable energy solutions. Born Global is a technology commercialization program for innovation in the bioeconomy, focused on economic, process and product innovation at the intersection of waste, energy and food.

With the competition spanning the entire academic year, all involved had to pivot when the COVID-19 crisis struck earlier this year. Instead of a final in-person presentation, the student teams presented their project reports via Zoom.

The Born Global competition aimed to have students focus on developing innovative renewable energy solutions that are easy to implement and economical. Each team participating in the competition had to be interdisciplinary and comprised of students from the College of Engineering, and from other schools and colleges at BU.

Associate Professor Emily Ryan (ME, MSE), whose research focuses on understanding renewable energy storage systems, headed up the contest.

“We were very impressed with all of the teams,” says Ryan, who judged the contest along with Born Global Foundation Chief Executive Officer Kimberly Samaha (ENG ’89) and Institute for Sustainable Energy Executive Director Jacquie Ashmore. “And particularly impressed with their motivation and ability to complete the competition in this challenging and stressful time given COVID-19, lockdown and remotely finishing the semester.”

“The first year of the Born Global Foundation Innovation Competition was focused on carbon cycling and many of the finalists found process innovation solutions,” says Samaha. “We were particularly pleased with how many students incorporated biomimicry into their design process.”

Biomimicry, which is the method of taking inspiration from nature and utilizing it to develop strategies to solve human challenges, is a driving principle at Born Global, and students were encouraged to use this process in their project development.

Four teams participated and three received prizes. In first place, a project by Cathy Cheng (ME ’23) and Lekhya Sathi (SAR ’23) titled Redesigning the Urban Environment; second, the project BeagleNet by Dylan Derose (ME ’22), Pavel Gromov (ME ‘20), Jordan Nichols (CAS ‘22) and Peter Siegel (ME ’22); and in third, the project titled Energy Efficient Architecture by Kaihui Gou (ECE ’20) and Lin Fan (EE ‘20).

Cheng and Sathi, who garnered the top prize of $5,000, embraced the theme of the contest by bringing in biomimicry to their design with their plan to recycle waste water, and produce both food and biomass. They would achieve that goal by developing photobioreactors to produce biomass, and vertical farms to produce food, both of which could be retrofitted onto buildings. These systems would be fed with filtered wastewater, which is already nitrogen rich and can act as a fertilizer. Both systems capture CO2 to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere with little impact and cost, and would produce food as well.

Derose, Gromov, Nichols and Siegel’s project involved creating a product to measure emissions in cities using car-mounted monitors. Their team is also participating in the Innovate@BU Summer Accelerator Program. They won $2,500.

Gou and Fan used beautifully drawn architectural concepts to incorporate plants into the design of buildings for improved daylight, energy efficiency and solar energy generation. Their prize was $1,500.

“Some of the participants have joined Born Global for our remote online internship program where we will take innovation to the next level or regenerative and restorative,” says Samaha. “We’ve also created a Born Global Foundation LinkedIn group so the students can connect with mentors and experts.”

Ryan says, “All the teams presented creative, well thought out projects, which all have great potential to help create a more sustainable world.”