A Cleaner Future: Contaminant-Detecting Water Sensor

https://i1.wp.com/f.fastcompany.net/multisite_files/fastcompany/imagecache/1280/poster/2014/05/3030503-poster-p-jack-and-beaker.jpgJack Andraka is at it again! For those who follow this blog (or subscribe to Forbes or watch TED Talks), this young man probably needs no introduction. But if not, then you might not known that Andraka is than the young man who – at 15 years of age – invented an inexpensive litmus test for detecting pancreatic cancer. This invention won him first prize at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), and was followed up less than a year later with a handheld device that could detect cancer and even explosives.

And now, Andraka is back with yet another invention: a biosensor that can quickly and cheaply detect water contaminants. His microfluidic biosensor, developed with fellow student Chloe Diggs, recently took the $50,000 first prize among high school entrants in the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge. The pair developed their credit card-sized biosensor after learning about water pollution in a high school environmental science class.

andraka_diggsAs Andraka explained:

We had to figure out how to produce microfluidic [structures] in a classroom setting. We had to come up with new procedures, and we custom-made our own equipment.

According to Andraka, the device can detect six environmental contaminants: mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, glyphosate, and atrazine. It costs a dollar to make and takes 20 minutes to run, making it 200,000 times cheaper and 25 times more efficient than comparable sensors. At this point, make scaled-down versions of expensive sensors that can save lives has become second nature to Andraka. And in each case, he is able to do it in a way that is extremely cost-effective.

andraka-inlineFor example, Andraka’s litmus test cancer-detector was proven to be 168 times faster than current tests, 90% accurate, and 400 times more sensitive. In addition, his paper test costs 26,000 times less than conventional methods – which include  CT scans, MRIs, Ultrasounds, or Cholangiopancreatography. These tests not only involve highly expensive equipment, they are usually administered only after serious symptoms have manifested themselves.

In much the same vein, Andraka’s handheld cancer/explosive detector was manufactured using simple, off-the-shelf and consumer products. Using a simple cell phone case, a laser pointer and an iPhone camera, he was able to craft a device that does the same job as a raman spectrometer, but at a fraction of the size and cost. Whereas a conventional spectrometer is the size of a room and costs around $100,000, his handheld device is the size of a cell phone and costs $15 worth of components.

andraka_seimensAs part of the project, Diggs and Andraka also developed an inexpensive water filter made out of plastic bottles. Next, they hope to do large-scale testing for their sensor in Maryland, where they live. They also want to develop a cell-phone-based sensor reader that lets users quickly evaluate water quality and post the test results online. Basically, its all part of what is fast becoming the digitization of health and medicine, where the sensors are portable and the information can be uploaded and shared.

This isn’t the only project that Andraka has been working on of late. Along with the two other Intel Science Fair finalists – who came together with him to form Team Gen Z – he’s working on a handheld medical scanner that will be entered in the Tricorder XPrize. This challenge offers $10 million to any laboratory or private inventors that can develop a device that can diagnose 15 diseases in 30 patients over a three-day period. while still being small enough to carry.

For more information on this project and Team Gen Z, check out their website here. And be sure to watch their promotional video for the XPrize competition:


NYC’s Futuristic Pool: Cleans Water Before You Swim

exorcisepool-perspective-poolWater pollution is one of the most serious environmental concerns facing the planet, and as with most things environmental, the culprit is urban sprawl. Take Newtown Creek in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Williamsburg, which is one of the smelliest and dirtiest watersheds in the world. In addition to oil and industrial contaminants, the watershed is heavily burdened by the worst byproduct of urban living there is: sewage.

At present, storm water combines with the local sewage in a pipe-overloading combination that sends over a billion gallons of wastewater into the creek each year. Unlike industrial chemicals, which can be captured and treated to render it harmless, urban sewage is created in volumes that are extremely difficult to manage. And for most cities, the option of simply dumping it in the ocean is too attractive to pass up.

exorcisepool-treatmentHowever, architect Rahul Shah has a bold solution for dealing with this problem: Build a swimming pool. The Exorcise Pool – which Shah proposed for his master’s thesis at Parsons The New School For Design – wouldn’t use water directly from the Newtown Creek, its water supply would be the same, and its purpose would be both to mitigate and reveal the woeful state of local water pollution.

Instead, Shah’s project would divert an estimated 76,000 cubic feet per year of run-off into “bioswales”: ravines full of cattails, bulrush, and algae that would both absorb and carry water downhill. These bioswales would replace sidewalks on eight blocks of East Williamsburg, covered by grates where there are garages or doors to warehouse apartments.

exorcisepool-exteriorWater not absorbed by the plants would be carried to a series of water treatment technologies, using everything from algae to UV light to a bed full of reeds that will help trap solids. Ultimately, the water would not be clean to the point of drinkability, but would be safe as anything found in a pond. And in addition to drawing attention to the state of the river, the purpose, according to Shah, would also be to “showcase of different methods of water treatment.”

But of course, the main attraction, once all this water is treated, would be a series of patio misters and a public pool. The misters, according to Shah, will act as a sort of “test of faith”, where people decide to take a leap by letting treated water touch their skin. After that tentative step, they will have the option of swimming in it.

exorcisepool-showerAnd though the project is not being realized just yet, it stands as a suggestion of how to repurpose and redesign urban structures that were once sources of pollution into something healthier and more natural. In many ways, it calls to mind the work of the design firm Terreform ONE – which is seeking to convert Brooklyn’s Naval Yard into a vast greenspace through living architecture – or New York’s real estate firm Macro Sea, which began converting old dumpsters into mobile swimming pools back in 2011.

In the end, its all about converting the problem into a solution. Repurposing and redesigning the older, dirtier habitats of the past and turning them into something that actively cleans up the despoiled environment is much cheaper and easier than bulldozing and redeveloping them, after all.

And it also serves to remind us of how large urban environments are a part of the solution as well. With many people crammed close together amidst such sprawling infrastructure, the challenge of meeting future demands for space and clean living is visible and direct. As such, it has a hand in leading to innovative solutions and bright ideas.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, terreform.org, macro-sea.com