Michael Elizabeth Sakas / CPR News
Gitanjali Rao is already on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and she has not yet reached high school.
In 2017, the then 11-year-old from Lone Tree, Colo. He was named the youngest scientist in America to design a small, mobile device that tests lead in drinking water. Rao did not stop there. Now it gets help from scientists in the water sector to create a working prototype of the device that can ultimately be on the market. Rao's invention is called Tethys, since the Greek goddess Titan is pure water. The 3D-Printed Box is the size of a deck of cards and contains battery, bluetooth and carbon nanotubes. Rao got the idea after reading how such a technology could detect dangerous gas in the air. Its immediate reaction was "why not use carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead in water?" The Flint water crisis is the motivation behind the invention.
Rao remembers watching his parents trying to test their drinking water with a test strip set at home. The results seemed inconclusive and unreliable. The other option was to send a sample of water to a laboratory.
"[Tethys] is for people who do not really know what's in the water from the pipes leading to their house." My target market is currently people in their homes as well as in schools, "said Rao.
Here's how it works: Carbon atoms connect in beehive and connect to create a tube – a nanotube. Carbon nanotubes respond to changes in electron flow. If there is water in the water, the lead sticks to the carbon ions, creating resistance. Tethys measures this resistance and sends the data to the application of a smartphone to give the status of lead in water. Selene Hernandez-Ruiz, Denver Water Laboratory Manager, teamed up with Rao to test and improve their device. They started working together after Rao was invited to take a tour of Denver Water's facilities.
Michael Elizabeth Sakas
Hernandez-Ruiz told Rao he could come back if he wanted to use the lab. The 13-year-old was hooked, "I asked, can I come here every day?"
Hernandez-Ruis and Rao gather around once a month to work on the device and test its results. "At the moment, I'm looking at interfering with other chemicals in the water, except for lead," Rao said. – What if you accidentally bind to fluoride [the carbon]? So that's something I'm trying to stop.
Hernandez-Ruis is excited to help a young woman's color create a passion for science.
"We are so hoping to see the present and next generation do it," she said. "With a real desire to excel and test these limits, sometimes we are told we should not get closer."
Rao is grateful for the opportunity Denver Wat gave her to keep working on her device. "My mother will not let me use lead in our backyard," Rao said laughingly. "That gives me the opportunity to get there [Tethys] I know my device can be right."
Rao hopes to bring out a prototype in the world over the next two years. Meanwhile, she fills up her inventor's notebook with new ideas.