Independent/Bosch competition: How to engineer green solutions

From flooding to scarce resources, our planet faces many problems – but through technology we can find answers. Caitlin Davies introduces our annual essay prize
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We all know about today's global challenges. How can we save the environment? Fight disease? Improve people's lives? And if there are two fields of study that can meet these challenges, they are technology and engineering.

"From our point of view, the answers to today's problems will be identified by scientists and engineers," says Dave Rowley, head of campaigns at the Royal Academy of Engineering. "It's not just we oldies who have good ideas; we want to know what young people see as innovative solutions to today's challenges."

That's why the Royal Academy is once again supporting the Independent-Bosch Technology Horizons Awards. This year, students are asked to provide engineering solutions to the world's most pressing problems.

Global challenges are not just about now, explains Rowley, but about the future. How, for example, can we make a nation more secure? One answer could be new airport equipment to detect explosives. What can we do to replace fossil fuels? An answer could be solar power.

Step forward Emily Cummins, one of the judges of this year's awards. She's a young inventor who, while studying for her A-levels, designed a new type of fridge for use in developing countries. She was shocked at how great a problem global warming had become, partly due to the rate at which fossil fuels were being burnt. It was clear to her that everyday appliances could not be used "every day" for much longer.

So she decided to design and make a sustainable refrigerator. She took it off to Africa for five months to test it and is now at the University of Leeds developing her product. But Dave Rowley says that many people still don't realise the extent to which engineers contribute to the latest developments. In the health field, for example, it is engineers who design replacement components – or body parts – such as the latest in bionic hands.

Environmental problems are perhaps the hottest topic of all. Type "environmental engineering" into the Ucas website and you'll find 79 courses, from disaster management and engineering at Coventry University, to sustainable engineering at Lancaster. The University of Southampton's environmental engineering degree examines ways to rectify past problems and manage those we are creating now – from the rise in sea level to managing waste.

So if you're a teacher, how about getting your students to debate these challenges? They can then sit down, write an essay, and enter this year's awards. This is what Phillip Heap did last year. He's the head of art, design and technology at St Olave's Grammar School in Kent. At his school, design and technology teachers showed their classes a series of slides on engineering, and discussed sustainability and globalisation. The competition was then used as a homework task.

Heap entered 82 essays. One student came third in the junior category, and the school won £500 worth of Bosch power tools for the department. This year the school's new engineering club will be preparing a presentation on global technical challenges, to be shown at a whole school assembly.

Last year's theme was how technology and engineering is driving change in a particular nation. Both winners chose to write about China. Christopher Cubitt, of Ilford County High School in Essex, won the category for 14- to 18-year-olds. "Technology," he wrote, "is setting the Chinese people free." His essay covered the surge in e-commerce and the rise in blogging.

The winner of the 19-24 category, Carmel Digweed from the University of Sheffield, argued that China "will no longer be the big bad wolf of the environmental world", thanks to new technology and the use of alternative sources of energy.

"I've never entered a competition in my life," says Digweed, "But I saw it on The Independent's website and I thought, 'Hmm, that could be interesting.' I did a fair bit of research, wrote the essay and sent it off – and didn't think any more about it. When I got the phone call saying I'd won I couldn't believe it." She's hoping to use her £1,000 prize to travel after she finishes her journalism degree. Maybe, she says, she might even go to China and learn more about global challenges first-hand.

The inventive minds of tomorrow: how to enter

Today, we launch the fourth Independent-Bosch Technology Horizons Award for young writers, supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering. There are two categories: one for students aged 14-18 and another for those aged 19-24. The theme this year is: how can technology and engineering provide innovative solutions to today's global challenges?

The theme is deliberately broad to draw in subjects from across the whole curriculum. "We want to inspire students to think about the issues and really get to grips with the opportunities and potential applications of engineering and technology in today's world," says Helen Watkins, Bosch's spokeswoman. "Our company exists because of our innovators and engineers and we want to ensure a new generation of top engineers is coming through schools and get young people excited about engineering."

Among the new areas Bosch is working in is organic photovoltaics: solar cells that can generate electricity from light. The new technology is aimed at making the manufacture of solar cells more cost effective. The cells are based on carbon, and because they are flexible and thin, they can be embedded in different materials. In the construction industry, for example, the cells can be used as a thin layer of plastic on roofs and windows. They can also be used as foldaway mobile phone chargers.

Another new field is ways to power cars. Bosch is in a joint venture to manufacture lithium-ion batteries, for hybrid and electric vehicles. If a car can be powered by electricity alone, that will mean zero-emission motoring.

Still in the automobile area, Bosch has developed a Start/Stop system, to switch off an engine when the car is stationary at traffic lights or in a traffic jam. The engine restarts when the clutch is pressed, thus reducing fuel consumption.

Last year, 500 students entered the awards. Every essay is marked by a panel of judges, and all entrants receive a certificate. The winners will be invited to an award ceremony next summer.

The judges are: Robert Meier, MD of Robert Bosch Ltd; Gordon Masterton from Jacobs Babtie, the civil engineering company; TV presenter Johnny Ball; engineer and former presenter of 'Tomorrow's World' Kate Bellingham; and student inventor Emily Cummins.

Entry details

Competitors aged 14-18 are asked to write a 500-word essay; those aged 19-24 write a 750-word article.


The 14-18 age group: first £700; second, £300; and five third-place prizes of £150. There will also be prizes for the two schools with the most entrants. Teachers sending in more than 15 essays will get a free Bosch cordless screwdriver.

The 19-24 age group: first, £1,000; second, £500; and five third-place prizes of £250.

The winning article in each category will be published in 'The Independent'. Entries must be in by 20 March 2009. To enter visit