Ever wonder what motivates a team to join a hackathon and their process to get to their solution? We chatted with the 2nd place winners in the University category of the Xylem Student Global Innovation Challenge 2021, the Mars-WET (Water Extraction & Transportation) team about what drew them to this hackathon in particular, how they worked together on this project and how they felt about their experience.

If you’d like to see more on the Mars-WET project, you can check out their YouTube video on the story behind their project here, or their Facebook page dedicated to their process - before, during, and after - here. (Trust us, you want to check it out!!) 

Special thanks to the winning team for taking the time to answer our questions! Zong Junn Lee, Loh Juin Xian, Crement Ong Wen Yao, Ian Lim Ting Hau, and Jia Xuan Wong

Does this motivate YOU to get a team together and join a hackathon? Check out our upcoming events here

1. How did you and your team decide that you wanted to participate in this hackathon? Did one person suggest it or did the team form from each person being interested in the possible projects? (And how do you know one another or did you meet through this hackathon? Had you all participated in hackathons before or were there any first-timers?)

Juin Xian was lying in bed after an intense revision for his final exam when he saw an Instagram ad about an innovation challenge. At first glance, he immediately ignored the ad as something irrelevant to him but later decided to swipe and read about the challenge. He learned that the competition aims to tackle our world’s most pressing water conservation and sustainability challenges. Intrigued, he then called his high school pals, Zong Junn and Crement with the message “Hey, are you still hungry for another competition? This time It’s  big.” Without a doubt, both agreed and we had already formed a 3-man team that was ready to break the boundaries once more.  Wanting to  maximize the  opportunity and utilize every resource Zong Junn suggested finding teammates who are in their undergraduate studies and are still living in Penang (our hometown)Ian and Jia Xuan joined us on board for this wild ride. To our surprise, we had all gone to the same high school - Penang Chung Ling High School and we are at the same age! 

Hackathons? This was something new to us, something that we never participated in before in Malaysia while we were in high school. However, Zong Junn and Crement both have participated in numerous innovation competitions together before such as F1 in Schools, Land Rover 4X4 in Schools Challenge, SIRIM Invention, Innovation and Technology Expo as well as National Oil Rig Competition while Ian and Juin Xian were involved in the Penang International Science Fair (Agritech for All). 

2. Tell us about your project. What led you to choose this project and solution? (Please elaborate on this as much as you can)

We contemplated between challenge statement #3 - Predicting Urban Flood Events and challenge statement #4 - What if you Lived on Mars? Challenge statement #3 had real-life applications. Our hometown, Penang, is constantly prone to flash flooding. We considered  developing a system in hopes of minimizing the damage of flooding to city infrastructure, especially during the monsoon seasons. However, we finally settled on challenge statement #4 as we were eager to exceed the limitations of our perceived imaginations and creativity. Life on Mars is and always has been one of humanity’s greatest unsolved enigmas. All of us are space enthusiasts; we wanted to embark on a journey to explore the possibility of settling a human colony on Mars. And that is exactly what we achieved. 

Competition was rife, and if we wanted to stand a chance to get our hands on the coveted prize, we had to distinguish our project from the hundreds of project submissions. Hence, Mars-WET, or known entirely as Mars Water Extraction and Transportation, focused on the entire ecosystem of a Martian habitat, rather than a small segment of it. The core foundations of ancient civilisations such as Mesopotamia and Egypt originated from building their empires surrounding vast water sources. These civilisations thrived as a result of the plentiful resources and minerals garnered. Hence, MARS-WET utilises a similar approach for the establishment of self-sustaining Martian colonies

Our water extraction mechanisms, called Rod-well rovers and Rassor rovers (Ground Excavation Units) will form the foundation of our Martian colony. The Rassor rovers will be responsible for kickstarting water production on Mars. It works by excavating and transporting Martian regolith to our water extraction unit, where it will extract its available water content. The remaining dehydrated regolith will then be used as the building blocks of our Marsha habitat. The Rod-well rovers, on the other hand, will be the main source of water production on Mars. It works by drilling past the Martian regolith to reach the icy layers. A hot water jet will then be deployed to melt the ice layer. The water will then be transported to a water distribution valve, where it distributes water evenly to the Marsha habitats. 

We often overlook the importance of water on Earth, due to its abundance and widespread availability of it. On Mars, water is a valuable and scarce resource that is worth something like gold. To ensure that water produced is properly utilised without wastage, we have introduced a Martian Identification Card (MIC) for every Martian crew. Each crew will be eligible for a certain amount of water per sol (a day on Mars) according to their basic needs and job requirements (E.g. Hygiene, Drinking, Food, Scientific Purposes, etc). Each time a crew obtains water, he/she will have to tap his/her MIC to register and sign a receipt in acknowledgement of the water usage. At the end of the day, the water budget must be submitted by every Martian so that everyone's water consumption data per sol will be encrypted and stored in a block and consequently added to the existing blockchain of the community. However, the blockchain system will immediately identify any failure or any discrepancies of water budget submission by an individual within the community. This will disrupt the water supply in the particular community until the mistake is rectified. This may sound strict, however, this is to ensure that water is not used for unnecessary purposes 

To ensure that our Martian system is self-sustainable and economical in the long run, we have tapped into the concept of in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU). The ISRU plant will produce other useful resources such as oxygen to fulfill human needs and methane to sustain exploration purposes. Our pressurised rovers are powered by solid-oxide fuel cells (SOFC), which uses methane as a source of fuel. In terms of energy production, we have tapped into nuclear energy, using Kilopower Reactor Using Stirling Technology (KRUSTY) and Dynamic Isotope Power Systems (DIPS) Carts. Both technologies have the capacity to provide for the overall energy requirements. We also have an on-site greenhouse to develop research on producing edible food on Mars, as well as a mechanical unit to build and repair any structures or machines. All of this can be achieved without the need of transporting resources and energy from Earth.

Our scale models and 3D printed water extraction units were developed to allow the judges and our audiences to better understand our work. The original idea of designing, manufacturing and assembling our project arose after we found it extremely difficult to explain our ideas to mentors during one-to-one sessions. This was because it was hard for others to understand our core ideas and map out the entire ecosystem within a short period of time. Due to the sheer amount and complexity of our idea, we would sometimes contradict each other during team meetings, and spend a huge amount of time debating on what was the original idea. As a result, our scale model was designed to signify our team’s aspirations and sync the entire team in the same direction. Our 53-page research PDF was created to showcase our research capabilities as well as our understanding of the topic at hand. The research document was truly the epitome of our work. Everything was original, from the process diagrams, to mechanical systems and to our 3D model renderings. We even calculated the feasibility of the entire ecosystem, with water, energy and mission cost budgets. 

3. What was your process like of delegating work to each person on the team? Did you already know who would do what going into the hackathon? How well did you work together?

Our preparation for the challenge was merely 7 weeks. The overall progress basically consisted of 5 weeks of pure research and 2 final weeks of designing the final product - scale model and research document. 

We delegated the research into a few segments: water extraction methods, energy production, rover design, habitat design and chemical processes. We analysed scientific papers such as: 

  1. NASA - Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0
  2. NASA - A Water Rich Mars Surface Mission Scenario
  3. Out in the Cold: Emergency Water Supply and Sanitation for Cold Regions
  4. Digitizing water management: Toward the innovative use of blockchain technologies to address sustainability

However, 5 weeks into the preparation process, we realised that we needed a product, rather than just a Microsoft Word document filled with simple research. Ideas are inherently cheap; hence we wanted to make our idea realistic. We started to compile all of our individual research and put the pieces together in this gargantuan puzzle. 

Next, we segregated and distributed the job scope based on each team member’s abilities and strengths. Zong Junn was in charge of designing all scale model structures using the Solidworks CAD software and manufacturing each of them out using 3D printers and laser cutters.  Ian Lim was responsible for developing the mechanical designs and vital processes for our water extraction methods. Juin Xian, on the other hand, focused on brainstorming and developing protocols for our water management and rationing system, while Jia Xuan shouldered the heavy responsibility to ensure the feasibility of the system with budget calculations and analysis. Crement Ong focused on compiling our work with graphic design as well as managing our social media page. 

With roughly a week to go, Zong Junn finished designing and manufacturing the 3D models. With the help of Juin Xian and Crement, we managed to assemble, paint and decorate the scale model in a space of 3 days. Due to a movement restriction order (MCO) in place, Jia Xuan and Ian were not able to come as they were living in different districts. Hence, they were hugely involved in the writing and compilation of the PDF Document. Our video presentation was also recorded individually, due to a full lockdown being implemented just a few days before the project submission. Using the Filmora video editing software, Zong Junn managed to overcome the problem of remote recording by merging our individual recordings into a complete piece. 

Communication was extremely efficient throughout the project preparation as all team members were actively engaged in our Facebook Messenger group and we had numerous face-to-face or remote meetings as well. Sometimes, we would work even until the wee hours in the morning! 

Overall, team synergy and chemistry was amazing. Our ideas somehow just clicked, slowly combining each piece of the complex puzzle. Our next goal is to participate in the Xylem Incubator, where we plan to further develop a specific aspect of our Martian ecosystem. 

4. Was there ever a point where you ran into roadblocks or challenges? What were those and how did you resolve them?

Our project changed drastically over the course of the event. At some point, we even proposed an idea of excavating the polar ice caps from the north pole and transporting them back to our colonies using blimps. It was a really bad idea because obviously this system is extremely inefficient and unfeasible. We often found ourselves stuck in an endless cycle of proposing new ideas and then eventually giving them up due to several problems. Scientists and engineers have not acquired sufficient data about the Martian environment. The lack of scientific resources and knowledge made it hard for us to develop certain ideas. On top of that, we are still students who know almost nothing about space exploration and Mars. Therefore, we had to work out everything from scratch!

Also, we were facing various challenges that disrupted our collaborative activities. A nationwide lockdown had prevented us from having physical collaborations, and this restriction has definitely made the job of building the scale model even harder. Time was not on our side either. We often have to run our online meetings during mid-night time as that was the only time when everyone was free. 

Despite all these challenges, we continued to strive forward. Thankfully, with the help from the mentors at Xylem, we were able to slowly make incremental improvements on our ideas. We definitely learned a lot from them, from industrial insights to how to think like an engineer to solve the problems we encountered. 

5. How did you feel when you had found out you had won 2nd place in the University division? 

We were confident that we would be among the top few contestants among the 23 projects submitted in the University Category. Due to our 3D printed Martian City, a fully dedicated video presentation and the ultimate 53 pages of research PDF where we have been working for weeks, we knew that would make us stand out from the other projects. We are five 20 year old students competing at the university category, where 4 of us have yet to pursue our undergraduate studies! Who would have thought our project could stand out among these students from the world’s prestigious universities like National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Universiti Malaya?

When we received an email from Xylem notifying us that we won the innovation challenge, all 5 of us were in joy and full of excitement! Getting 2nd place was *mind-blowing*, but 2nd place in the world? Absolutely ecstatic! We were shocked by the announcement, we even thought that this was just a dream, but no, we did it! 

Lastly, people in our hometown, the science communities, teachers, friends and family are proud of our achievement as well. We shared our joy with our alma mater Chung Ling High School Penang, as this is the place that united us to form Mars-WET.  We invited our headmaster and head of department (Science) to a short session to introduce our project ideas and achievements. They were extremely supportive and interested in what we achieved. We were exclusively featured on the school’s website and will be having further interviews with the school magazine! 

6. Overall, how was your hackathon experience? Would you recommend hackathons to other friends and colleagues?

The overall experience was thrilling as our emotions went up and down at every part of the hackathon when we faced different challenges, such as the change of the whole idea, presenting to one of the mentors from Xylem or even coming up with the crazy idea of 3D printing a scale model for presentation. Solving water problems on a planet that we have never been to before was a challenging experience. We had to do a lot of research compared to the other challenges as we only have reference from theory and we didn't know whether it is really possible or just assumptions. Fortunately we accessed sufficient resources to answer various ideas of ours and also guide us towards a solutionX. While the solutions we solved came altogether in a PDF document that we published, the feeling that we felt was satisfying. All the hard work, all the late night oil burned, and every last drop of brain were combined to form a masterpiece of ours, words can’t describe the feeling, but we”dlike to experience that feeling again if we had the chance. 

On the day of project submission, we had confidence in ourselves that we would at least strive among the 23 University Teams. When the voting for the People’s Choice started, however, we felt a little demotivated as we only had a few votes and only a few comments from the judges. We didn’t think we were going to be finalists until the email announcing the Top 3 came in, that night was an unbelievable night and we will never gonna forget it! 

The experience was immensely fresh, as this was our first time joining an international innovation challenge. We had no idea what an international challenge was and it was a great experience to compete with geniuses all over the globe at the same time. This hackathon is a memorable experience to each one of us as we are making a step forward towards achieving the dream of a new habitat of the entire human race and we are really looking forward to the product that we can produce when we further develop this challenge.

We will definitely recommend this kind of hackathon to our friends in the future, because this is the main reason why Mars-WET was formed. When there are more people participating in this kind of challenge, more problems and challenges can be solved. Let’s solve world issues together, and make mother Earth a better place to live in!