Greetings from Einstein

High School students research ‘Plasma in the Washing Machine’ and win the ‘Einstein OWL 2016’

Happy winner: Piravin Premaruban in front of the Hochschule OWL Detmold (University of Applied Sciences), where the “Einstein OWL 2016” prize-giving ceremony took place on the 14 June 2016.
Photo: © Birgit Sanders

Piravin is an auspicious name. Of ancient Sanskrit origin, it means knowledgeskillful or proficient, and in Hindu it refers to a specialist. Piravin Premaruban, whose parents come from Sri Lanka, certainly lives up to his name. The 19-year-old former student of Steinhagen High School (Westphalia), together with team mate Lukas König, has won the Einstein OWL 2016 science and engineering prize in a school competition.

Plasma in the washing machine

During physics lessons at the Steinhagen High School, pupils work in partnership with washing machine manufacturer Miele to discover how washing machines work and understand the underlying physical effects such as centripetal and centrifugal forces. This gave Piravin Premaruban an idea for his Abitur project (the German equivalent of A-levels in the UK or a high school diploma in the US). He already knew that plasma can disinfect and even sterilize and wondered whether laundry 'washed' with plasma might be helpful in ensuring hospital hygiene, or whether plasma could be used as an alternative to chemical bleaches in industrial production. Since the headquarters of Plasmatreat is in his hometown, he lost no time in asking the management whether he and his project colleague Lukas König could research the cleaning effect of plasma in the washing machine here. An idea that Plasmatreat CEO Christian Buske immediately supported.

Successful research

They soon began to conduct laundry trials at least once a week on a test rig in the Plasmatreat R&D laboratory in Steinhagen. It is only possible to treat water with plasma if voltage transmission can be excluded. This can be achieved using a special plasma jet, a CD-50 nozzle specially developed by Plasmatreat for sterilization purposes. The students integrated the nozzle into a conventional washing machine, which enabled them to activate the water by the reactive species generated by a pulsed plasma source. During this process the interaction of these species with water results in the improvement of the cleaning and bleaching performance.

Plasmatreat staff Dr. Salman Asad (R&D director), Kirsten Plappert (application technology) and Daniel Hasse (microbiology) were on hand to help the schoolboys with their experiments, as was the wfk - Cleaning Technology Institute e.V., Krefeld, which provided tips on standardized soiling to ensure consistent data recording, amongst other things. To obtain high quality results, it was essential that the amount of soiling and exposure time remained the same at all times and that a standardized marking point was used. The students chose cocoa, lipstick, red wine and ketchup as the standard stains.

After two years of research, they did it: The students were able to show that a combination of plasma-activated water and detergent obtained a better washing performance than detergent alone at 20, 30 and 40°C. Even washing just in plasma-activated water produced better cleaning results than the detergent.

Piravin Premaruban and his physics teacher Andreas Frerkes (front right) at the ‘Einstein OWL’ award ceremony. The prize was awarded by Stefan Wolf (Peter Gläsel Foundation Detmold), president of the regional government Marianne Thomann-Stahl (both second row) and Dr. Burghard Lehmann (Osthushenrich Family Foundation Gütersloh), Ute Kolbow (Günther + Rita Rudloff Foundation Minden) and Dr. Hans-Ulrich-Höhl (Carina Foundation Herford) (third row).
Photo: © Birgit Sanders

Armed with these results, Piravin Premaruban decided to present the project at Jugend forscht, via his school. Germany's most well-known youth science competition, whose patron is the German president, takes place annually at regional, state and national level. The two students not only won first place in the regional competition with the 'plasma in the washing machine' project, they were also awarded the special environmental engineering prize. When they secured third place in their category at state level in the North Rhine Westphalia competition, Piravin Premaruban ventured one step further and submitted the project to the Einstein OWL competition in Detmold. "Out of all the applicants, only five are accepted, so just getting the invitation is in itself a success!", he explained. The panel of judges were entirely convinced by the project. The students won the coveted prize, and also received a scholarship to a university and € 2000 in prize money.

Outlook

His school days are over now, but Piravin Premaruban's journey of scientific discovery goes on. He has just received an invitation to visit RWTH Aachen University, Germany's leading university for technical studies. "I will apply there and try to get a place on an electrical engineering course", said the soon-to-be undergraduate. He intends to continue researching 'plasma in the washing machine' and may even make it the subject of his bachelor's thesis.

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