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Tomorrow Today

Young Talents

Ideas happen somewhere else, you might think, not in the small town of Gräfenhainichen near Wittenberg in the eastern German state of Saxony Anhalt. But 18-year-old resident Uwe Treske has quite a few brilliant ideas.

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Winner of Young European Scientist Award: Uwe Treske, 18

The town of 8,000 has seen better days. In East German times, Gräfenhainichen was a centre for coal delivery to much of East Germany from the nearby open cast mines. After re-unification, the unprofitable mines were closed and flooded and the giant open cast coal mining machines have been left to rust. Locals are migrating away from the area, one in four people here is unemployed.

18-year-old Uwe Treske has made the best out of a bad situation. In a simple environment with simple means, he has become the best. Last year, Uwe won the European Union’s Young Scientist of the Year competition in physics. He had already won regional and national German science prizes to get to the final. The EU competition is a sort of champions league for young scientists. With support from his school, Uwe built a scanning tunnel microscope out of computer parts, styropor and tungsten wire. The microscope enables the user to obtain atomic resolution images on the surfaces of conducting solids, and to observe individual molecules and chemical reactions on the atomic scale. An invaluable instrument when it comes to optimising materials – such as mini computer chips – and making their structures recognisable.

Uwe calls it the Low-Cost Scanning Tunnel Microscope. A professional version costs hundreds of thousands of euros but Uwe’s improvised version, on the other hand, costs around 50 euros. He put together the individual components for his microscope himself which involved, among other things, stealing egg cups from his mum’s kitchen – perfect for cauterising wolfram.

The microscope isn’t Uwe’s only project. Working together with his friend Matze, he fiddled around with some old GameBoys and turned them into educational toys. Instead of tetris and other games, primary school pupils can now use the former toys to play with letters and practice basic math. It might not be long before teachers in Gräfenhainichen, instead of telling wayward pupils to put away their GameBoys, are telling them to get them out so that lessons can begin. The customised GameBoys are proving popular with younger kids and demand for the devices is rising.

But that’s not all! Uwe and Matze are already screwing together, soldering and generally assembling their next joint project. Something extraterrestrial is taking shape in Uwe’s old playroom – a Mars probe built of Lego bricks. The two young scientists have been inspired by the Mars landers built by the European Space Agency and NASA. Their aim is for their robot to be able to follow a preset route programmed into a GameBoy. They plan to build touch and light sensors, allowing the robot to recognise and avoid obstacles in its path. A piece of cake! At least that’s how Uwe and Matze make it look as they pore over their circuit diagrams.

The two plan to enter the GameBoy Mars Mission in next year's European Young Scientist of the Year competition – unless, that is, Nintendo sends the lawyers round to discuss a few patent issues. But first someone from the international toy company will have to find Gräfenhainichen on the map!