Middle school student wins $25k award for device that detects lead in water

Middle schooler wins $25k award for inventing lead-detection device

water-testing device
A seventh grader that we featured in July for inventing a lead-testing device in drinking water has won a prestigious award for her invention.

Gitanjali Rao, who competed in a distinguished science competition in the United States, won the 3M-sponsored science competition and was awarded the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist,” along with a $25,000 prize.

Her invention, a sophisticated method for testing for lead contamination in water, could significantly improve the response to chemical disasters like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In fact, Rao’s water-testing device was partially inspired by stories of chemical contamination such as the situation in Flint.

“Imagine living day in and day out drinking contaminated water with dangerous substances like lead,” Rao explained in her entry. “Millions of people around the world are exposed to water containing lead and its harmful side effects. My solution addresses a core issue of speedy detection of lead contamination, allowing preventative action and even saving lives!”

Rao is a student at Brentwood Middle School in Brentwood, Tennessee, and was one of just 10 finalists in the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. It’s a one-of-a-kind video competition aimed at sparking the imaginations of students across the country.

“3M’s commitment to the next generation of science leaders is energized each year by the creativity and ingenuity of these young scientists,” said Paul Keel, senior vice president, business development and marketing-sales for 3M. “Making the world a better place starts with a spark of curiosity, which leads to passion — and results in making an impact. 3M is inspired by these finalists and their contributions to making lives better.”

Rao’s enthusiasm is infectious, and her solution is positively radical. In reading through materials on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Material Science and Engineering website (as typical seventh-graders are not known to do), Rao learned about a new type of nanotechnology — and made the correlative leap to recognize a new practical application for it.

Her test device, which she has dubbed “Tethys,” uses a disposable cartridge containing chemically treated carbon nanotube arrays. This connects with an Arduino technology-based signal processor with a Bluetooth attachment. The graphene within the nanotube is highly sensitive to changes in flow of current. By treating the tube with atoms that are sensitive to lead, Rao’s device is able to measure whether potable water is contaminated with lead, beaming the results straight to a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. When it detects levels higher than 15 parts per million, the device warns that the water is unsafe.

tethys water testing device 3m

Even the name of the device is clever — in Greek mythology, “Tethys” is the Titan daughter of Uranus (Earth) and Gaius (Sky), and the mother of river gods.

Rao’s Tethys device offers real innovation in allowing live testing for chemical contaminants. Homeowners currently have to ship a kit to a chemical lab and wait a week or more for results. Moreover, most of the testing device is reusable, meaning it could potentially be produced at mass-market costs. Rao estimates that a Tethys kit could potentially cost as little as $20 or less.

Tethys isn’t Rao’s first invention. She was the first girl in Middle Tennessee to earn the designation of STEM Scout of the Year from the Boy Scouts of America — Middle Tennessee Council for inventing a device that can determine the kind and amount of toxin in a snakebite. She also placed third in the EngineerGirl Essay Contest with her essay, “Saving Mountain Gorillas with Machine Learning and Predictive Analytics,” and she’s won the National Association of State Aviation Officials Tennessee Art Contest three years running.

During the competition, Rao was paired with Dr. Kathleen Shafer, a 3M research scientist who develops new plastics technologies that have real-world applications in dentistry and other fields, to explore developing a product that people can buy. In future years, Rao hopes to become a geneticist or an epidemiologist, working in the field of disease theory.

On the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge website, Rao offers advice for other kids. “Just have fun,” she said. “There’s never a limit to how many times you want to keep trying and tweaking your projects. Keep trying, and one day, you’ll figure it out.”

Outdoors

Hydro Flask’s Journey backpack can keep your water cold for hours

The Hydro Flask Journey hydration pack uses insulating fabrics and heat-reflecting materials to help keep your water fresh and cold for hours on end while out for a hike or mountain bike ride.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Movies & TV

Stay inside this winter with the best shows on Hulu, including 'Killing Eve'

It's often overwhelming to navigate Hulu's robust library of TV shows. To help, we put together a list of the best shows on Hulu, whether you're into frenetic cartoons, intelligent dramas, or anything in between.
Movies & TV

Out of movies to binge? Our staff picks the best flicks on Hulu right now

From classics to blockbusters, Hulu offers some great films to its subscribers. Check out the best movies on Hulu, whether you're into charming adventure tales or gruesome horror stories.
Smart Home

Abode Systems upgrades its smart home gateway with new chip and Z-Wave Plus

Palo Alto-based Abode Systems is adding an upgrade to its popular smart home starter kit by replacing its central gateway with a second-generation version that supports cellular backup and enhanced Z-Wave support.
Smart Home

Put away that sponge and let us help you pick the best dishwasher for your buck

Tired of doing dishes by hand? Take a look at our picks of the four best dishwashers currently available and let a machine do the dirty work for you. They’ll do a much better job, anyway.
Product Review

Making a smart home can be a DIY job, but security should be left to the pros

Sure, you can DIY a smart home system, but when it comes to security, you should seriously consider professional monitoring and service. That’s where Vivint comes in. Is it worth the lofty price?
Smart Home

You can play NPR’s ‘Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me’ on your smart speaker

You can play "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" on Amazon Echo speakers or Google Home devices with the new Wait Wait Quiz. It's hosted by Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis and will be updated every week with new questions.
Smart Home

Walabot Home, a device aimed at keeping seniors safe, expands its capabilities

When you have to be away from your elderly family members, Walabot Home can serve as your surrogate. This device can detect when your loved one falls and will call for help — no wearables or user input required.
Smart Home

Allergies acting up? Thes best air purifiers on the market can offer relief

Indoor air is often more contaminated than the air outside, which can cause an array of health issues over time. Luckily, these air purifiers can easily rid your home or office of unwanted allergens and contaminants.
Smart Home

Hackers hijack Nest camera, issue fake warning of North Korea missile attack

A Nest security camera hijacked by hackers who used the device to issue a fake warning about an incoming North Korean nuclear missile attack heading toward Los Angeles, Chicago, and Ohio.
Smart Home

Starbucks coffee delivery lands in 6 more cities via Uber Eats

Starbucks is in the process of expanding its coffee delivery service far beyond Miami. Available via the Uber Eats app, the service has just launched in San Francisco, with five additional cities joining in the coming weeks.
Computing

Think someone's leeching off your Wi-Fi connection? Here's how to find out

It's important to find out immediately if anyone is stealing your bandwidth. Here's how to tell if someone is stealing your Wi-Fi using a few simple tools, along with some suggestions on improving security.
Smart Home

Sing with Freddie Mercury with the ‘Ay-Oh with Bohemian Rhapsody’ Alexa skill

20th Century Fox announced a new Alexa Skill for Freddie Mercury fans. To celebrate the digital release of Bohemian Rhapsody and a National Day of "Ay-Oh," fans can download the Ay-Oh with Bohemian Rhapsody Skill.