Standing on a stage in a New York high-rise building, 19-year-old Meinke van Oenen hoisted a small glass bottle of greenish water in the air, and proclaimed that the algae in the bottle are “the green gold that defeats salt”.
Van Oenen, a student at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, was part of a team that developed and presented an idea that uses halophilic algae to desalinate water as part of the UN2023 Gamechanger Challenge. The method, she said, is cheaper and more sustainable than conventional desalination methods.
She and her team, including Ayanda Mafunda of South Africa, Samah Iqtaish of Jordan and Mare de Wit of the Netherlands, were named winners at the Wetskills event that concluded the challenge.
The team said they hoped their method becomes an alternative to reverse osmosis, the energy-demanding method often used to desalinate water. Salt water treated by algae in pools reduce the salt content sufficiently, which means the water can be re-used in mining, industry and in some agricultural activities. If a university supports the idea with research, a pilot plant using the method could be starting operations in just one year.
“It’s not a very complicated system: you let nature do its job,” Van Oenen said.
More than 200 teams from more than 60 countries entered the challenge, with five finalist teams from the Philippines, India, Niger, The Netherlands, and South Africa
More than 200 teams from more than 60 countries entered the challenge, with five finalist teams from the Philippines, India, Niger, The Netherlands, and South Africa presenting their ideas on 20 March as part of New York Water Week, held on the sidelines of the UN 2023 Water Conference. Other ideas presented at the finals included a system that captures, treats and stores rainwater so that it becomes a source of drinking water, submitted by a team from Nigeria and Ghana, and a plastic recycling system that involves local communities using machinery to create usable products from plastic waste, submitted by a team from South Africa.
The head of the jury judging the final, Yasmine Jabali, Assistant Professor at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, told the finalists that they were all winners: “You should develop your ideas and never give up: make them happen!”
The UN 2023 Gamechanger Challenge, organized by Wavemakers United and IHE Delft, invited youth to share their ideas for social and technical water innovations to tackle the global water challenge. In addition to working together to develop their ideas with the help of mentors and other resources, the challenge participants also gave lectures in their communities about water challenges.
Youth and expert juries judged the challenge submissions during multiple selection rounds, selecting front-runners based on the originality, local relevance, and global potential of their idea. The 20 top ideas are presented on the Challenge website to encourage development partners to adopt the ideas and support their realization.