From a 'Safe Driving' sensor to a 'Basketball Bin' and a 'SolaChip' to charge your phone wirelessly, the inaugural STEPS Young Engineers Award proved to be an impressive display of engineering aptitude and innovative insight, writes Marita Reilly



From a ‘Safe Driving’ sensor to a ‘Basketball Bin’ and a ‘SolaChip’ to charge your phone wirelessly, the inaugural STEPS Young Engineers Award proved to be an impressive  display of engineering aptitude and innovative insight. STEPS Engineers Ireland’s Marita Reilly examines the three shortlisted projects.

The winning team, ‘The Carrots’, Bunscoil na Chabhlaigh, Co Cork – a team of five girls and a boy – designed a USB-size photovoltaic device called the ‘Solachip’, which can be plugged into a phone to charge it wirelessly, on the go.

The panel of judges(2), comprising engineers from different engineering disciplines, selected this project as the overall winner due to the quality of the project and, importantly, the innovative ‘X-factor’ the young engineers presented.

The judges put a strong emphasis on innovation as a criterium when reviewing the projects. Although at such a young age, third and fourth class students have limited technical and scientific knowledge, their creativity, on the other hand, and ability to think outside the box, is unlimited.

From the hundreds of entries submitted there were many that displayed pioneering ideas – simple ideas that are not commonplace in our technical, consumer world. Were some of the young engineers’ ideas truly innovative? Is there research currently being carried out on the development of a similar product? Just how innovative were our young engineers?

1.) ‘Enthusiastic Engineers’ Project: ‘Safe Driving’

The ‘Enthusiastic Engineers’ from Co Cork were shortlisted for their project ‘Safe Driving’. They designed a steering wheel which can detect blood alcohol levels on touch. Should the wheel return a reading greater than the allowable legal limit, the car will not start. They claimed that this preventive measure would reduce road accidents and would make their community safer.

On first impression, this idea appears a simple, sensible and innovative measure to deter drink driving, that is not widely known or available, certainly in Ireland. Has this idea been adopted, or investigated, anywhere else in the world? The simple answer is yes. But why is it not yet a safety feature as standard on our vehicles, like an airbag or seatbelt?

This is slightly more complicated. There are many versions of ‘interlock’ using touch technology available to purchase(3). However, these typically have zero tolerance, so are used by commercial fleets to monitor employee drivers, or are fitted for convicted drink-drivers as a punitive measure(4).

An interlock system for the domestic car which can read the level of alcohol in the blood (as opposed to detecting any alcohol at all) has been in R&D in the US since 2008. It is anticipated to be available (voluntarily) by 2020(5).

The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) Program, a government supported initiative, is researching a first-of-its-kind technology that will instantaneously detect a blood alcohol level. The device detects alcohol using infrared light penetration through the capillary blood vessels in the finger.

The ambitious design of this tiny device comprises miniaturising a spectroscopy lab and adding an understanding of electrical engineering, biology and blood chemistry to the software. Understandably, there have been many challenges in bringing about this design, including how to ensure precise and accurate readings in all conditions.

However, DADSS CEO Robert Strassburger noted that their biggest challenge is how to interpret human absorption of alcohol as a function of gender, ethnicity, time, food consumption and so on so they can be accurately represented in a robust algorithm(6).

The young engineers behind ‘Safe Driving’ certainly proposed a device that has been identified by leading governments as having clear commercial value and positive community impact.

There is no doubt that their idea was innovative, given that the design is still undergoing research and testing. We have seen how their engineering idea has many real-world challenges and requires cross-disciplinary expertise to bring the device to a marketable standard for widespread use.

2.) ‘AJAJAA’ Project: ‘Basketball Bin’

The second shortlisted, the ‘Basketball Bin’, was submitted by ‘AJAJAA’ from Firhouse in Dublin. They were awarded the runner-up prize for their work. Their proposal comprised a bin shaped like a basketball net that could be installed in any locality.

Their bin is fitted with lasers, cameras and software so that a passer-by with rubbish could throw the litter at the bin to gain a score. Although their idea was simple, it made clever use of technology  – and psychology  – to encourage better environmental habits in the community.

The judges particularly liked this idea. It was something practical, and realisable, and could provide an effective measure to help tackle a global problem. But was it innovative? Do they exist in Ireland, or globally? Surprisingly, although the idea of making litter fun to throw away is not new, the idea of using technology to encourage it is not widespread.


The research in trash can technology focuses on methods to use solar power, or other sources of renewable power, to compress litter in a bin and to use ultrasonic waves to determine the remaining volume. This allows for greater capacity and a reduction in collections.

For example, a South Korean company, Ecube, is targeting developing countries with a network of such smart bins(7). However, using engineering design to create a visual feature to attract the attention of litter-throwers and to change attitudes, like our young engineers’ proposal, is less documented.

There are many ‘fun bins’ which make use of art, rather than technology, to encourage good litter practice. For example, in London eye-catching murals which resemble a child’s ‘join-the-dots’ game invites passers-by to reveal the hidden picture using their discarded chewing-gum (gross!). Technical ‘Fun Bins’, like the Basketball Bin, are less popular.

One company leading the movement in this area is Sencity. It is a US based company whose mission is to use technology for human engagement in smarter cities. It has developed a bin it calls the TetraBin. This has been installed in cities in the US, as well as in other cities such as Sydney(8).

Its design features infrared sensors on the inside of the bin to detect the size, speed and shape of the rubbish as it is thrown in. This information is processed by algorithm to produce a visual display on the external LED-lined surface(9).

It is very exciting to watch the bin light up in customised colours and patterns as you dispose of your rubbish. What’s more, the bins can connect over 4G so you can ‘play’ with or against other fellow rubbish throwers! The TetraBin is quite similar in idea to the ‘Basketball Bin’. In fact, they do make a basketball-style bin which scores the litter on entry.

However, it is not as interactive as the young engineers’ design and TetraBin is better known for its colourful LED bin. It is fair to say that, even though it is not necessarily a new concept, the ‘Basketball Bin’ devised by the Firhouse students was innovative. This simple concept, designed by young people, for young people would be a positive use of engineering in the community.

3.) Winning Project: The ‘SolaChip’

The winning project, the ‘SolaChip’, used an engineering concept that was not quite as simple or straightforward as the ‘Basketball Bin’.

In fact, this winning team pushed the boundaries with their ambitious innovation. They devised a USB size device, fitted with solar receptors, to click into your phone to charge wirelessly. Unlike the first two examples of innovative projects, this idea is not yet available on the market.

However, the future is bright regarding solar power engineering and this device may just be the next big thing!
Solar energy research is experiencing significant investment globally(10). It offers an alternative energy source that would help mitigate our reliance on fossil fuels and imported energy.

Although solar panels have been around for decades, the technology has many limitations and barriers. For one, the efficiency is low. Efficiency of the common silicon solar panel is typically about 15 per cent, even on a sunny day(11). In fact, the maximum theoretical efficiency of a silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell is less than 34 per cent(12).

Solar panels tend to need large surface area and direct sunlight to reach a satisfactory efficiency, which inhibits the ability to produce a tiny solar phone charger like the SolaChip, at this time. However, recent research in the area looks promising for the future development of this device.

Solar energy research has concentrated on three key areas: new materials, energy storage and efficiency – all of which could combine to contribute to the realisation of the SolaChip. One type of material which has huge potential in augmenting the solar power applications is perovskite. This is an (organic-inorganic) semiconductor characterised by its crystalline structure(13).

This PV substance can be sprayed in liquid form in thin transparent layers onto a substrate. This has many applications including use on windows, screens or flexible surfaces. It is also more efficient (at circa 23 per cent) than silicon(14). There are concerns over the stability of this material in moisture and high temperatures.

However, it should soon be available on the market. Research into efficiency has seen some significant breakthroughs also. One interesting area is in ‘electric charge funnelling’. Although, unlike perovskite, this technology is only in development stages.

A team of physicists from the University of Exeter published a paper in ‘Nature’ on a method of straining atomically thin photo-active material to ‘funnel’ the charge, thus increasing efficiency of the cell by more than 300 per cent(15).

This research is in early days yet. However, Silicon Republic’s Colm Gorey compared this innovation to powering a house with a panel the size of a book(16).

With increased efficiency of solar power generation and more flexible use of materials, it seems that the winning team from may just see their product on the market at some point in the future. Perhaps they could help to engineer its design, should they consider engineering as a career.

But were the team innovative, giver that they designed a device that cannot yet be produced? Yes. The team came up with an idea that many engineers would not be prepared to imagine due to the limitations of the technology. They used their knowledge of existing technology and devised a possible application that would enhance their lives and the lives of others. They were truly ambitious and innovative in their engineering design.

The STEPS Young Engineers Award was primarily a competition to give young students an opportunity to learn about engineering. However, a surprising – and welcome – outcome for Engineers Ireland was that the projects submitted gave a snapshot into young people’s natural innovation.

The above three examples were diverse in their content, but all three displayed real engineering aptitude and innovative insight. Even though the students were not necessarily able to understand complex engineering theory, they demonstrated their skills by using familiar technology, then improving, enhancing or expanding it so that it could be applied in a novel way to design a product that could help society.

Engineers Ireland STEPS programme

STEPS seeks to promotes interest and awareness in engineering as a future career to school students. The programme is managed by Engineers Ireland and supported by Science Foundation Ireland, the Department of Education and Skills, and a number of leading engineering employers: Arup, ESB, TII and Intel.

The STEPS Young Engineers Award is a competition open to third and fourth class primary school students, challenging them to undertake an engineering project that would improve their community or improve the lives of those in their community.

If you would like to sponsor the STEPS Programme please contact Roseanne O’Leary at:

Author: Marita Reilly, STEPS Engineers Ireland


1.) The STEPS Young Engineers Award is a competition open to 3rd and 4th class primary school students, challenging them to undertake an engineering project that would improve their community or improve the lives of those in their community.
2.) Frances Humphreys, IBM; Jamie Crampton, Roughan and O’Donovan; Jean Smith, Winthrop Engineering; Patrick McDonagh, Intel; Saorlaith Ní Shuibhlaine Jacobs Engineering; Tom King, Dromone.
3.) Kunkle, F (2019). Retrieved from
4.) Kunkle, F (2019).
5.) Knapton, S (2015). Retrieved from
6.) Kunkle, F (2019).
7.) Ramirez, E (2016). Retrieved from
8.) Naudus, K (2017). Retrieved from
9.) TetraBIN. (2016). Our Vision. TetraBIN. Viewed on April 12, 2019.!vision.html
10.) EU Science Hub. (2018). New solar power plants added almost 35 per cent to the worldwide new power generating capacity in 2017. Viewed on April 17, 2019.
11.) Murmson, S (2017). The average photovoltaic system efficiency. Retrieved from
12.) The Shockley–Queisser limit
13.) Chandler, DL (2019). Unleashing perovskites’ potential for solar cells. Retrieved from
14.) Chandler, DL (2019)
15.) De Sanctis, A (2018) Retrieved from
16.) Gorey, C ((2018). Book-sized panels could power a whole home in new breakthrough. Retrieved from O'RiordanTechCPD,education,STEPS
Introduction From a 'Safe Driving' sensor to a 'Basketball Bin' and a 'SolaChip' to charge your phone wirelessly, the inaugural STEPS Young Engineers Award proved to be an impressive  display of engineering aptitude and innovative insight. STEPS Engineers Ireland's Marita Reilly examines the three shortlisted projects. The winning team, ‘The Carrots’, Bunscoil na...