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Meet The Inspiring 18-Year-Old Who Built A Simple Water Purifier That Could Save Lives

A busy university professor didn't have time to work closely with his high school student intern. So he sent her off to figure out her own project. What happened next will make you feel good about the future.

If you're worried about the state of the planet, fear not. The next generation has it covered.

Meet Meghan Shea, an 18-year-old from West Chester, Pennsylvania. Working largely on her own, she's come up with a cheap, effective water filter that could be a help to millions of people, if developed fully. It's the sort of thing that makes you feel better about the future.

Two summers ago, Shea was on a summer science fellowship at Texas Tech University. She was supposed to be working with a microbiologist professor. But he was too busy, and she was sent off to work on her own, with the vague mission of looking into "water purification." Shea started reading about moringa oleifera, a commonly occurring tropical tree. Moringa seeds had been identified as a possible low-cost purification material, but never really developed seriously.

Shea thought she would try. She took old PVC piping and made a device with four layers: moringa seeds crushed into a powder, soil, charcoal and fabric. She then tested it with water full of E. coli bacteria and another full of contaminants. She found that her device took out 99% of the bacteria, and 70% of the coloration. The seeds act as a sort of coagulant: Unwanted material bunches together as it comes into contact with the Moringa and can't pass through the other layers.

Popular Mechanics recently awarded Shea its "Next Generation" prize at its Breakthrough Innovator Awards.

Shea says she's been obsessed with science since the age of six, telling everyone how she's going to be a biologist one day. This summer, she was in Kenya on another science trip and got a chance to speak to several locals about her idea. She particularly likes that families can build their own version. "The beauty is we can make this device out of anything, because it's the material we put into the device, not necessarily the device itself, that purifies the water," she says.

Shea has just started as a freshman at Stanford University and hopes to keep working on filter further, and eventually get it out into the world—either as a physical device, or a piece of intellectual property others can make their own.

"I found something with so much potential, it seems silly to stop working on it, until i come up with a device that can begin to be used. The trick will be in disseminating the information to people using it," she says.

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  • hereatpsu

    Two summers ago = year 2011.

    now read this (published in 2010, meaning written even before):
    Micahel Lea, 'Bioremediation of Turbid Surface Water Using Seed Extract from Moringa oleifera Lam. Tree', Current Protocols in Microbiology, February 2010; doi:10.1002/9780471729259.mc01g02s16

  • New_Clear_Waste

    Um, before the inventor of this latest iteration of water filter puts too many resources into this, and before co.Exist goes too ga-ga over it, they may want to research the long history of very effective and inexpensive water filters promoted in poor countries, and why the poor never really warmed up to them. It's not a technology issue so much as a consumer preference issue. It may come as a surprise to those who believe the poor will be grateful for anything you put before them, but they are actually consumers who have preferences, and they tend not to like super-low-tech things from charities that seem to underline how poor they are.

  • Correct... convincing people that something very small can hurt them can be complicated. Be cautious when ascribing this behaviour to "poor people," a term that many people think is synonymous with stupid, primitive or uneducated. Don't forget we have a large community in the U.S. that is highly educated and wealthy, yet they eschew vaccinations because a former Playboy model hit the daytime tv circuit to promote her personal fame while hysterically screaming that vaccinations are dangerous.

  • Giosuè De Carli

    yep, usually it is not a matter of tools... mindset instead is far more important if you want to reach real change with the so called poor people... a huge list of failures can prove that. anyway I like this effort, only if you're not too much focused on it.