From large wind turbines to large river creatures, the BT Young Scientist Exhibition (January 10-13) covers a lot of ground, writes Denis Lehane.
Love it or loathe it, you simply cannot ignore the wind turbine in rural Ireland.
So it’s no surprise then that a group of aspiring scientific students at this year’s BT Young Scientist Exhibition have their gaze firmly fixed on the gigantic spinners.
Miriam Murnane, Eileen Condon and Kate Murray, are fourth year students at St Mary’s Secondary School, Macroom, Co Cork.
Miriam and Kate are from the locality, while Eileen originally hails from Chicago.
Their project looks at bat mortality rates at wind turbine sites.
Student Miriam Murnane told me about the project.
“In our CSPE class in third year, we learned that bats were protected in Ireland, and when we started researching bats, we found that many were being killed every year by wind turbines all over the world.
“According to studies done in the US and other European countries, many bats were being killed by barotrauma and direct impact due to wind turbines.
“Barotrauma occurs when the blades of the turbines are spinning, and this decreases the air pressure around the turbine.
“When bats fly into this vortex of low air pressure, there is not enough pressure on the bats’ lungs and they explode inside them.
“We were interested in whether the number of bats being killed by turbines were similar in Ireland.”
So our intrepid wind turbine investigators took to the fields, to a dairy farm in Bawnmore (only a few miles from Macroom town), where wind turbines are located.
Getting permission from the land owner to carry out research on his farm, the students quickly went to work.
This wind farm 30km northwest of Cork City and on the southern slopes of the hill named Burren, has a total of eleven turbines.
It is divided into Bawnmore 1 and Bawnmore 2.
The students carried out research at Bawnmore 1, where there are five turbines.
The blades of each turbine are 41m long and the height of the turbines (excluding the blades) is 98m.
They each produce 2.3MW, this is enough to power 1,495 homes. Each year, one turbine reduces greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 2,365 tonnes of carbon dioxide, by replacing energy generationin fossil fuel power plants.
“Bats play a huge role in our ecosystem,” student Eileen Condon tells me.
“They are pest controllers, as they eat thousands of insects each night.
“Some species of bat act as pollinators and agents for seed dispersal.
“We arrived at Bawnmore wind farm at dawn every Sunday for six weeks, we went at this time so we could find any deceased bats, that may have been injured during the night, before other wildlife could influence the findings.
“We placed wooden stakes 50m away from the base of the turbine around the entire diameter, as studies from the US had shown that bats were being killed within those measurements.
“We examined the ground intently for any sign of a bat from the hardstand to the fields surrounding the wind turbine. We searched the surrounding area [within 50m of the base] of the five wind turbines in Bawnmore Wind Farm.
“We wore suitable clothing and high-visibility jackets to ensure we would be seen, as it was often dark and foggy.
“We visited the wind farm for six consecutive weeks during September and October, as bats hibernate in November.
“We photographed our findings and surroundings every week to document the weather and show that we searched the wind farm every week. We found no deceased bats over the course of the six weeks.”
As for conclusions, student Kate Murray said, “During our time at the wind farm, no dead bats were found, this led us to conclude that Irish regulations regarding wind farms are stricter, for good reason, and better for the environment than regulations in certain parts of the world, including America.
“This was a positive revelation for us as Irish regulations are protecting this endangered species and not harming the wildlife.”
Whatever your feelings are towards the hulking steel wind turbines, or even bats, I think we can all agree that the appearance of the coypu in our rivers has been a most unwelcome sight.
Ballincollig Community School students, Emer Conway and Nicola Batt, have taken on the task of investigating the creature for the BT Young Scientist Exhibitition, and highlighting just how dangerous the coypu can be.
“They have been described as being like rats or rodents, but are not actually related to them,” Ballincollig Community School Student Nicola Batt explains.
“The coypu, also known as nutria, is a semi-aquatic herbivorous rodent native to South America. The average weight of an adult is 4-9 kg and it can reach 40–60 cm in body length, with a 30cm to 45cm tail.
“They have coarse, darkish brown fur with soft, dense grey under-fur. They have a white patch on their muzzle, webbed hind feet and large, bright orange-yellow incisors. Those would be three distinguishing features a coypu would have.
“It has been spotted in both the Curraheen and Lee rivers. Ten were eradicated from a location close to the Curraheen dog track in May, 2016.”
“Well they sound like right ugly creature to me,” I interject.
“They’re not ugly, they’re actually quite cute in my opinion,” student Emer Conway says.
Cute or ugly, nearly everyone agrees the Coypu is an unwelcome visitor.
Emer Conway continues, “The coypu is included in the list of the 100 world’s worst invasive alien species, and in the list of the ten invasive species with the highest number of impacts on ecosystem services.
“There is evidence that coypus destroy bird nests in nesting sites. Digging by coypus in drainage canals can affect the stability of banks and even cause severe floods, with significant costs and risk to human safety.
They are considered a serious economic pest because they eat a variety of agricultural crops and pasture plants.
“The coypu is a successful coloniser of freshwater ecosystems, substantially disturbing aquatic vegetation through grazing and undermining riverbanks by burrowing.
They are usually found in wetlands, marshes and slow-flowing streams. And yes, they should be culled, because they reproduce very fast, and can reach very large numbers quickly.”
“We visited numerous locations along the Curraheen and Lee rivers, including the location where they were found. We are still investigating/surveying. We are still researching. We didn’t spot any, we didn’t really expect to, as they are nocturnal.”
Help for the students’ project was given by Danny O’Keeffe (National Parks and Wildlife Services), and Fidelma Butler (an ecologist at UCC).
The students are still working on their conclusions and they will be revealed at this years Young Scientist event.
Smart milking solution
Speaking of results, farmers anxious to improve milk quality might be interested in the project from our next bunch of scientifically minded students.
Second year students Porosh Hossain, Jack James, and Kelvin Osgie, from North Monastery Secondary School in Cork, have designed and made a device called ‘a smart milking solution.’
This device was developed to detect blood in cows’ milk as they are being milked. The device uses a colour sensor which can detect unwanted bloody milk and will set off an alarm so the farmer can keep it out of the bulk tank.
The students worked hard to come up with the right design and to wire and code the device. Through investigation, they had to come up with thresholds of red colour or blood which would set off the alarm, which were then coded into their device.