Nov 29, 2017 | By Tess

An ambitious seventh grader from Colorado has just been named “America’s top young scientist” for having invented a low-cost 3D printed device that can detect lead in drinking water. The youngster in question, 11-year-old Gitanjali Rao, was also awarded a $25,000 prize along with the title.

Rao was inspired to create the innovative device after learning about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been living without safe drinking water for three years due to inefficient water treatments, and many have been exposed to harmful levels of lead from the city’s water supply.

"After I learned about Flint, I continued to research and follow it for the next couple years,” explained Rao to CNN. “Then, I saw my parents testing for lead in our water and that is pretty much what sparked the idea. I realized that using test strips would take quite a few tries to get accurate results and I wanted to do something to change this, not only for my parents but for the residents of Flint and places like Flint around the world.”

Currently, the lead level in Flint’s water are estimated at being somewhere between 397 parts per billion and 13,000 parts per billion—both of which are considered harmful levels by the EPA. In fact, within the United States, the EPA has found over five thousand water systems that are in violation of its lead and copper regulations.

Having an accessible device to test your own drinking water, therefore, could help keep you healthy.

As Rao mentioned, there is an existing method for testing your water for lead at home, which consists of a strip testing system. These store-bought tests cost between $15 and $30 and are capable of detecting various kinds of water contamination (including lead) though are not always completely accurate. Concerned consumers can opt for a more accurate and detailed lab test, but this can cost up to $100.

Rao’s 3D printed device, however, could offer a cheap and accurate solution. Called “Tethys” (appropriately named after the Titaness of fresh-water from Greek mythology), the device consists of a 3D printed casing embedded with a processor (which can send information via Bluetooth to a smartphone app) as well as special lead-reacting atoms, and carbon nanotubes (micro-scale structures which can reportedly detect lead in water faster than existing techniques).

According to the 11-year-old inventor, when the 3D printed device is placed in water, the special atoms detect the lead molecules by creating a sort of resistance in the flow of the nanotubes. “The amount of resistance is proportional to the amount of lead in the water,” Rao explained.

“The processor includes an attachment that sends the measurements over Bluetooth to a smartphone. The smartphone app, that I custom developed, captures this data and shows the results on a user-friendly scale,” she added.

And while the seventh grader acknowledges that lab testing is still the most accurate way to detect water contamination, she also believes the low cost and accessible nature of her Tethys system will prove to be more practical.

"My solution addresses all of the above issues,” she said. “It uses a disposable cartridge that can cost as low as a dollar, it is fast, accurate and it shows lead contamination levels on a regular smartphone, that are easy to interpret and take appropriate action.”

(Images: Discovery Education)

The existing Tethys prototype—made using 3D printing—cost about $20 to produce, though Rao is hopeful that the price will be decreased significantly if the device can be manufactured in bulk. In fact, Rao intends to use her $25,000 in prize money to further advance her water detecting technology. "I hope to make it commercially available in the next year so that it's in everybody's hands,” she said.

Rao first submitted her idea for the Tethys device to the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a national science and engineering contest for middle school students. Her proposal was accepted and the seventh grader was provided with a three-month mentorship with Kathleen Shafer, a researcher in the field of new plastics.

Together, the pair brought the Tethys from concept to functional prototype, which evidently wowed the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge judges as Rao was awarded the top prize.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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