A team of three students from the University of Malawi’s School of Natural and Applied Sciences have been shortlisted in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Students’ Competition on the Benefits of Nuclear Sciences: GC67. The first phase of the competition, announced in April this year, required students to develop an abstract for a project showing the utility of nuclear science to address some challenges facing their communities.

When the competition was announced, the three students, Mr. Elias Seda (Bachelor of Education – Physics), Ms. Enita Ebium (Bachelor of Science in Chemistry – Honours) and Mr. Grasswell Mkanda (Bachelor of Science in Physics), formed a team and developed a proposal highlighting the utility of nuclear energy in relation to the agriculture sector as well as the environmental sector in Malawi and beyond.

The proposal from the team is entitled “The use of isotopic techniques in quantification of amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied to different types of crops in Malawi”. Specifically, the aim is to understand how various crops cultivated in Malawi utilise fertiliser by using isotopes of nitrogen (N-15) and phosphorus (P-32). The ideas developed in the proposal led to the team being among the 6 teams shortlisted from Africa. For the next phase of the competition, the team will have to develop a short video presentation of their topic, which they will then upload to YouTube for people to appreciate and support. Currently, the students are receiving assistance from the Department of Physics and Electronics in their preparation.

According to Ebium, the project would be important for people to know the exact amount of fertilizer needed for specific plants. “This will help to ensure food security, through the production of good yields obtained from current amount of fertilizer,” she pointed out. “Additionally, it will help people to save money, because they will stop adding excess fertilizer to the soil, when plants only take up a specific amount. Lastly, it will help to protect our environment from damage. We know that if you add excess fertilizer to the soil, some of it penetrates through the soil into ground water, affecting the quality of water in general”.

Having been shortlisted, the students believe that this proves that the knowledge they obtain at UNIMA is good enough to compete with any other institutions globally. Additionally, they emphasize that their participation in this competition is a good illustration of the practical use of classroom knowledge to the world.

The students’ supervisor, Mr Vincent Peheliwa, is proud of his team. He promises to continue supporting the team in all aspects, so that the project can eventually be implemented. He acknowledges that this project has a huge potential impact for UNIMA and the country.

The top three teams will get to attend the 67th IAEA General Conference, which will be held in Vienna in September, 2023. The winners will have a discussion as a side-event at the conference, and will also have a chance to visit the laboratories and other facilities to do with nuclear technology.