Young Scientist: Terenure College student (16) wins for data project

Shane Curran develops encrypted data storage system ‘guaranteed to remain secure’

The BT Young Scientist and Technology Competition has been won by Shane Curran of Terenure College, Dublin. His project ‘qCrypt’ is a cryptography ecosystem designed to preserve secrets in the interests of peace and security. Video: Bryan O’Brien

 

A Dublin student has been named the 2017 BT Young Scientist of the Year for his project on protecting sensitive data.

Shane Curran’s “qCrypt” system has significant commercial potential if it performs as well as he believes it does.

The Best Group award went to students from Sligo with their project on protecting the endangered hen harrier.

The runner-up individual prize went to a student from Cork for his new method for identifying super massive stars. The runner-up group accolade went to two students who studied the geology of a section of the River Moy.

The development of a simple-to-use encrypted data storage system guaranteed to remain secure was the goal of fifth-year student Shane Curran (16), of Terenure College.

He is a veteran at the exhibition, with his 2017 project the fourth he has brought to the RDS.

Six months of research

It took six months of research and then another four or five months to develop the software that drives his “qCrypt” system. He believes it is so secure it could never be broken into, even with the use of quantum computers.

He got the idea after hearing about how Boston College was forced by the courts to release historical political interviews involving former IRA members. If the data had been stored in his system it would have remained secret, he said.

The system can break up the original data and store pieces of it in a variety of jurisdictions, which he calls “multi-jurisdictional quorum sharding”, which prevents the data being reassembled even under court duress.

He also developed a new encryption key system that is safe from attack by quantum computers, should they ever come into use. He says it is as simple to use as any file transfer product but is 40 per cent faster. Mr Curran won the best individual project at the 2016 exhibition.

BT Young Scientist

Perpetual trophy

Mr Curran, as BT Young Scientist for 2017, receives a perpetual trophy, a cheque for €5,000 and a chance to represent Ireland at the EU young scientist competition later this year in Estonia.

The best group prize went to Michael Sheehan and Jack Murphy, two 16-year-old Transition Year students from Coláiste Treasa in Cork. They focused on the hen harrier, an endangered species here. They wanted to establish prey availability on lands given over to farming.

There are only 108 to 157 breeding pairs left in Ireland, they said, with key reasons for the decline including habitat loss and competition for the birds, small mammals and other foodstuffs they prefer.

The students conducted surveys and built up maps of land use and pair numbers accessing these spaces. They also surveyed for various types of prey, trapping small mammals to count their availability and counting bird numbers.

It took them three months to complete their surveys and process all the data they collected. Their findings have become very important given new legislation related to farming practices in an attempt to conserve this species.

The new scheme affecting farmers will help protect the hen harrier even across agricultural land. “We have set out guidelines for farmers to do this,” they said. They receive a BT trophy and a cheque for €2,400.

Massive stars

Cormac Larkin (19), claimed the runner-up individual award. He developed a new approach to identify massive stars very quickly even in the midst of a heavily populated part of the universe known as the Small Magellanic Cloud.

These large stars are eight times bigger than our sun and although they are very bright in ultraviolet light, this light is readily blocked off by interstellar dust and our own atmosphere.

Cormac, a 6th year student at Coláiste An Spioraid Naoimh in Cork, decided to use a different approach based on combining the star’s visible light with its infra-red light signal. “This is not used to find stars in this way,” he said, but he was able to mine existing data to see if it could select promising candidates for these stars.

He developed software that looked through the data and quickly found target stars. These in turn could then be viewed through a conventional telescope for further study.

“These stars are very important for understanding our galaxy’s formation,” and there is a constant search for promising candidate stars, he said.

Senior astronomers

Cormac worked with senior academic astronomers and delivered a research paper at a conference last year. It took him 18 months to put together his project.

He receives a BT trophy and a cheque for €1,200.

The runner-up group prize went to Matthew Blakeney and Mark McDermott of Jesus & Mary Secondary School, Sligo, who were able to read the history and the geology of part of the shoreline on the Moy Estuary.

The two 14-year-old second-years wanted to know why non-local flint, chert and other stones were deposited in an area where everything under foot was limestone.

They began to study the geology along the Moy and collected samples lying on the surface. They began searching for places where the flint and chert might have come from, tracking them down to locations in Wales and England.

Digging through regional histories they learned that ships sometimes dumped ballast along the Moy shoreline, stone that included the types of flint found at the UK locations.

They concluded that the foreign stone samples were deposited by shipping as it dumped ballast and also by the effects of glaciation during the last Ice Age, when rock would have been carried and pushed along by moving ice.

They win a BT trophy and receive a cheque for €1,200.

The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition remains open until Saturday afternoon.