EPFL holds a giant hackathon on sustainability

With its Solutions4Sustainability initiative, EPFL aims to channel its community members’ knowledge and skills towards the goal of promoting more environmentally friendly lifestyles. To that end, projects selected under the initiative will be granted a hefty chunk of funding.
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It’s a community initiative unlike any other. Solutions4Sustainability is a project-funding program that goes well beyond typical initiatives of this type because it’s open to the entire EPFL community – students, scientists, and technical and administrative staff alike. “We saw during the pandemic that research labs can achieve great things when they unite their efforts around a common goal,” says Gisou van der Goot, EPFL’s Vice President for Responsible Transformation.

Given the scale of the challenges facing the next generation – whether in terms of climate change, the environment or social equality – it’s become even more important to think outside the box. And that’s what Solutions4Sustainability is designed to do. The initiative will support the most promising ideas in the areas of clean energy, energy storage, sustainability and carbon capture, storage and use. EPFL plans to become a center of excellence in energy and sustainability at the School, complete with demonstrators and systems ready to be rolled out on a large scale.

Up to 30 million francs

Projects selected for the program must be able to be implemented by 2024 and should target a substantial reduction in the carbon footprint of the School and, ideally, of the economy more broadly. Ten projects will be selected and will receive a total of CHF 10 million in funding. Two additional, larger-scale projects will also be chosen to receive CHF 10 million each over six years; these projects must demonstrate feasibility by 2027 with a view to being scaled up to societal use.

“Going from research to application usually implies a very short timeframe, but scientists have shown they can work well together quickly and effectively under that kind of pressure,” says van der Goot. “During the pandemic, for example, scientists from an array of fields – and not necessarily virology – were able to pool their knowledge so that in just two years’ time, SARS-CoV-2 became the best-understood virus ever!” Ambrogio Fasoli, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Research, adds: “Our focus with Solutions4Sustainability is on coming up with solutions. We want to foster dialogue between scientists conducting basic research and experts whose experience is oriented more towards R&D.”

The application period for the program runs from 12 December to 15 January. Project ideas can be submitted on the Solutions4Sustainability webpage.

Great minds at work

The organizers are looking forward to seeing the original ideas that the EPFL community will come up with. They already got a first taste in early December, when EPFL hosted a student hackathon weekend on its Lausanne campus (see box). This event was also geared towards sustainability. “The students made my Sunday with their energy and creativity,” says Anna Fontcuberta i Morral, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Centers and Platforms. “I could see it’s a topic that really matters to them.”

“Solutions4Sustainability is different from most funding programs run by research institutes,” says van der Goot. “But the challenges facing our society are unprecedented. They relate to sustainability in the broadest sense, not just climate change or clean energy. We therefore need to expand our research horizons and the potential scope of applications.”

Hackathon unlocks a gold mine of ideas

At LauzHack in the first weekend of December, over 150 students worked day and night to give life to their inventive ideas.

The event was sponsored by EPFL as part of the Solutions4Sustainability initiative. Students were asked to tackle issues such as cutting energy use and promoting sustainability.

Two of the winning projects – Green Receipts and Carbon Food Print – were along these lines. They both presented simple, effective ways for consumers to measure their carbon footprints on a daily basis: Green Receipts involved creating an app that calculate CO2 from a picture of supermarket receipts, while Carbon Food Print designed one that analyses a picture of restaurant meals.

Other projects looked at ways to reduce our energy use through systems for monitoring, controlling and lowering power consumption. One project team outlined software that could be used at least initially by the EPFL community to share equipment and therefore reduce the need to purchase new machines. Another envisioned an app that alerts users to places on campus where energy is likely being wasted, for instance due to a poorly closed door or an overly heated room. And yet another mapped out a system that could automatically control the heating in a room or building based on expected occupancy and potentially slash energy use by some 15%.

“The students showed so much imagination and came up with so many great ideas that I’m sure our main Solutions4Sustainability program will go exceptionally well,” says Fontcuberta i Morral, who attended LauzHack.