By Ariel Schwartz
Rest easy, everyone. The next generation of scientists is already hard at work solving our biggest problems. Take Deepika Kurup, a 14-year-old high school student from Nashua, New Hampshire. After seeing children in India drinking dirty water from a stagnant pool, she decided, in her words, "to find a solution to the global water crisis." And then she actually made some progress towards that goal, developing a solar-powered water purification system.
Kurup's low-cost invention just won her $25,000 in The Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge--a high-stakes science competition for students in 5th to 8th grade (Kurup entered the competition before she was in high school). This was her second time entering; in 7th grade, she took first place in her state.
This time around, Kurup spent three months toiling away at the project, foregoing vacations and summer camp to leaf through PhD papers about water purification methods. She spoke with her mentor at 3M every day. And she tested the purification system independently in her backyard with contaminated water taken from the Nashua wastewater treatment facility. She ultimately came up with a system that exposes titanium oxide and zinc oxide to sunlight, creating a chemical reaction that generates hydroxyl radicals, which in turn can kill harmful bacteria.
Kurup used her system for one set of testing; the other was a control. She counted bacteria before and after purification (with 3M petrifilms), and discovered that water which had gone through her composite--which costs about half a cent per gram--had significantly fewer coliform units and E.Coli colonies in a matter of hours.
Unlike today's popular water purification methods--using UV lamps that require electricity or chemicals that give water a nasty smell and taste--Kurup's method can run off-grid, generating fresh-tasting water. She has competition from innovative water filtration systems like LifeStraw, of course, but this isn't the last we'll see of Kurup's inventions.
The high school freshman hopes to work with Discovery and 3M on developing the water filtration project. She's also interested in speaking with other companies that could help with funding. "My next step is applying for a patent," she says. "I want to start a nonprofit organization to deploy my innovation."
After graduation, Kurup wants to become a neurologist. But first, more science competitions. "Science is really my passion," she says.
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.