STEM ambassadors thrashing stereotypes

Over the last four decades, STEM industries have risen to great heights. Scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical minds have been called to rally. And the demand continues. How can you contribute?

Few would dispute that technological and scientific advancements dominate the 21st century. Adverts provide ample proof. From tablets to smartphones, to robot home appliances and driverless cars, our world is changing fast. As a result, we are now living in a global knowledge-based economy where information can be considered as the highest form of currency. This reality comes with both benefits and challenges. 

Statistics from 2013’s European Company Survey show that 39% of European Union-based firms had difficulty recruiting staff with STEM skills. Malta is no exception. Another report in 2018 showed that people with STEM careers are still in short supply locally, especially in the fields of healthcare, ICT, engineering, and research. So, while the jobs are available, there aren’t enough people taking up STEM careers, and this is holding Malta back. 

There are many reasons for this trend. For one, Malta has a low number of tertiary level graduates; the third lowest in the EU. An array of harmful stereotypes can also shoulder some blame. The ‘fact’ that people in math, science, and technology ‘don’t have a social life’ is unhelpful. The ‘nerd’ image is still prevalent, especially among the younger generations that are still in primary and secondary school. Then there is the ‘maleness’ associated with STEM jobs and industries. According to Eurostat statistics, in 2017, from 18 million scientists and engineers in the EU, 59% were men and 41% women. 

Still, this is far from the whole picture. 

Employers have reported instances where, despite having enough graduates to fill roles, applicants did not possess the right non-technical skills for the job. This was especially true for abilities such as communication, creative thinking, and conflict resolution. 

Many were unprepared to work in a team, to learn on the job, and to problem solve creatively. This is a real concern, especially for the country’s future. At the rate with which markets are evolving, a decade from now young people will be applying for jobs that do not exist today, and the country needs to prepare students for these roles. And it has to start now. 

The Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) is trying to do this through an Erasmus+ project called RAISE. They are launching an Ambassador Programme to empower young students to take up the STEM mantle. STEM Career Cafés are going to be popping up in schools all over Malta, alongside a Career Day at Esplora aimed to inform and inspire. This is where you come in.

They want undergraduates from the University of Malta and MCAST to work with Esplora by sharing your experiences in STEM and telling your stories to encourage those who may be considering a STEM career. STEM Ambassadors will gain important public engagement skills while making research and science careers more accessible.

STEM is crucial in our contemporary world; our economies depend on it. It has completely changed the way we live and opened up new prospects for a future we never imagined. For those who have already made up their mind to be a part of it, there is now the opportunity to empower others and guide them in finding their own path. 

Note: To become a STEM Ambassador, email or call 2360 2218.

The MCST, the University of Malta, and the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology have embarked on a national campaign to promote STEM Engagement. Its first activity was a National STEM Engagement Conference.

Green heat, green power

At face value, renewable energy seems the smartest choice for a cleaner tomorrow. But when green energy cannot be stored, what do we do during scorching summer afternoons and cold winter nights? Cassi Camilleri speaks to Prof. Joseph Cilia and his team to find out more about the innovative solution they are developing.

The movement towards sustainability has been ramping up over decades. Now, it feels like it has reached fever pitch. Headlines are hogged by the latest scary statistic on air, land, or sea pollution. People are rallying, demanding that new measures be implemented to reduce waste and clean up our streets. Despite this call, real advances on these issues always manage to find themselves obstructed by seemingly ‘rational’ arguments.

For one, renewable energy isn’t as reliable and cheap as fossil fuels. Overhauling the status quo is expensive and requires significant effort, both of which make people frown. Solar power depends on the sun, wind power depends on wind, both of which are quite unpredictable. But while this is true, it shouldn’t even be considered an issue. We live in a country on the receiving end of 550,000 GWh of solar energy annually, while we need only 3,484 GWh to cover all energy consumption. Let that sink in.

Of course, I hear your concerns about the quantity of solar panels needed to harvest that energy—Malta is so small and built up. But in reality, only 28% of our island is built up, and just 7% of the remaining land would be required to meet the total energy demand. So yes. There are solutions to our energy woes. And those solutions need to be combined to create the best results.

Thanks to support from Abertax Kemtronics and MCST (Malta Council for Science and Technology), Prof. Joseph Cilia and his team of researchers (Department of Industrial Electrical Power Conversion, University of Malta [UM]) have found that houses with a normal-sized photovoltaic system can supply more than 100% of the total energy they need during summer. During winter, that figure falls to 50%. To manage this drop, energy can be supplied through other sources. Enter the Micro-CHP.

A small combined heat and power (CHP) machine provides seasonal energy in two forms: electrical and thermal. It consists of a standard internal combustion engine coupled with a generator that produces electrical energy. The thermal energy resulting from the engine and exhaust is then recovered using water heat exchangers and reused to heat the house and domestic water.

While similar systems already exist, most are geared towards industrial applications. The rest cost, on average, around €15,000—pricing a large cross-section of society out. The system Cilia and his team have developed makes use of a grid PV system, combined with battery energy storage, a heating and cooling heat pump load, a CHP machine, and LED lighting. It is also an easy-to-install, plug-and-play solution that fits into your current setup, as opposed to a complex installation that would force everything to change with it. By the end of it, the team’s CHP will cost the consumer around €8,000.

Their study of Maltese households showed that in a typical medium-sized household, energy needs vary substantially. The energy fluctuations for a typical Maltese household are usually about 500 kWhr between the summer and winter seasons. In this case, storing this energy in a battery is not feasible. What is feasible is simply making more efficient use of the LPG gas tank that most people already have and use at home. If one wants to be renewable, one can also use ethanol or methanol to operate the CHP, which, if used in combination with a heat pump, can easily reach an efficiency of 150% to 180% in heating mode.

Added to this, the team’s system is unique compared to others on the market. It is connected directly to the main electricity supply, tapping into it whenever the system needs support, while not using mains electricity when enough energy is being produced by the system itself.

The system is scalable due to the plug-and-play concept the system is based on. It can be upgraded as more and more savings are made on electricity bills. ‘The idea is to provide a cost-effective solution that even low-income households can afford,’ says Cilia. This can not only trigger a widespread use of energy generation and storage for domestic use, but also turn consumers into suppliers of their own energy needs. Gone are the days of being dependent on the grid.

 Author: Cassi Camilleri

Project A Smart Micro Combined Heat and Power System financed by the Malta Council for Science & Technology, for and on behalf of the Foundation for Science and Technology, through the FUSION: R&I Technology Development Programme.

Malta’s brightest exports: Travelling to the EU’s JRC

A group of Maltese researchers travel to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre site in Ispra to share their work in the fields of climate change, environment, and medicine. Cassi Camilleri writes.

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Green Planes Safe Planes

Prof. Ing. David Zammit Mangion has been spearheading research in aviation at the University of Malta for two decades. With a focus on improving fuel burn, reducing emissions, and better flight management systems for pilots, the one overarching aim is safer air travel.

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Mutate My Software


Computer systems run the world and are found in fridges to hospitals. Every application needs testing, which is expensive and time-consuming. Dr Mark Micallef and Dr Christian Colombo from the PEST research group (Faculty of ICT, University of Malta) tells THINK about a new technique which could make testing easier and more consistent. Illustrations by NO MAD.

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Scientific beauty of diamonds

Laptops and mobiles are smaller, thinner, and more powerful than ever. The drawback is heat, since computing power comes hand in hand with temperature. Macs have been known to melt down, catch fire and fry eggs — PCs can be even more entertaining. David Grech (supervised by Prof. Emmanuel Sinagra and Dr Ing. Stephen Abela) has now produced diamond–metal matrix composites that can remove waste heat efficiently.

Diamonds are not only beautiful but have some remarkable properties. They are very hard, can withstand extreme conditions, and even transfer heat energy faster than any metals. This ability makes diamonds ideal as heat sinks and spreaders.

The gems are inflexible making them difficult to mould into the complex shapes demanded by the microelectronics industry. By linking diamonds with other materials, new architectures can be constructed. Grech squashed synthetic diamond and silver powders together at the metal’s melting point. The resulting composite material expanded very slowly when heated. The material could dissipate heat effectively, and was cheaper and simpler to produce than current methods — a step closer to use on microchips.

Grech’s current research is focused on obtaining novel types of interfaces between the diamond powders and the metal matrix. The new materials can improve the performance of heat sinks. New production techniques could help make these materials. By depositing a very thin layer of nickel (200 nanometres thick) on diamond powders using a chemical reaction, the gems would form chemical bonds with the layer while the metal matrix would form metallic bonds. The material would transfer heat quickly and expand very slowly on heating. A heat sink made out of this material would give us a cooler microprocessor and powerful electronics that does not spontaneously catch fire — good news for tech lovers.



This research was performed as part of a Bachelor of Science (Hons) at the Faculty of Science. It is funded by the Malta Council for Science and Technology through the National Research and Innovation Programme (R&I 2010-25 Project DIACOM) and IMA Engineering Services Ltd.