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One Young Man Tackles a Huge Global Problem

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Image Credit: Jonas Borg

An 18 year old student from the Houston area won international acclaim earlier this year when he unveiled a science project he developed on his own, in his spare time. It’s a water filter that can remove heavy metals from electronic waste from drinking water.

The problem of e-waste has been well documented. As we adopt more and more personal electronics, we generate more and more e-waste. It might be hard to believe, but we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg right now. Smartphones are everywhere in some countries already, but new coverage subscriptions are projected to more than double over the next 5 years, with most of those new subscriptions coming from Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa. Ericsson Mobility recently projected that by the year 2020, 70% of the world’s population will be using smartphones.

The issue is compounded by the ideas of planned obsolescence, and Moore’s law, which keep us buying new devices as the software and hardware in our existing devices become obsolete every few years. As a result, we’re throwing away millions of tons of electronics each year.

And these devices are, unfortunately, pretty toxic to the environment. Some of the materials can be recycled, but the majority end up in landfills or massive waste piles. A report earlier this year found that 70% of the heavy metals in US landfills come from electronics, even though only 2% of the trash is electronic waste. It’s nasty stuff.

Countries in Africa and Asia are importing much of this waste, accepting the toxicity in exchange for the money they can make by taking it off the hands of western countries.

18 year old Perry Alagappan, from Houston, took the problem head on.

He developed a new filter, using graphene nanotubes, that can filter 99% of the heavy metals from water. The filter he made can be reproduced for about $20, making his solution 5 times less expensive than the reverse osmosis technology that has been widely used in the past. The filter is renewable, unlike reverse osmosis filters that are discarded and replaced. After each use, you rinse the filter with vinegar, and it’s ready to go again. And the filtered metals can be used or sold for profit.

Perhaps the best part of this story is that Perry has decided to make his project open source, so that other researchers around the world can pick up his work and make further improvements without worrying about infringing on his patents.

This young man started working on this project out of a personal desire to help his family. He explains, “I became interested in water purification when I visited my grandparents in India, and saw with my own eyes how electronic waste severely contaminated the environment.”

Perry Alagappan was awarded the Stockholm Junior Water Prize at World Water Week for this invention. He also won an AXA Achievement Scholarship. He was accepted to study at Stanford, and began working on his undergraduate Pre-engineering degree there this fall.

Here he is to tell you about it himself…


Sources:

Texas teenager creates $20 water purifier to tackle toxic e-waste pollution
American student wins 2015 Stockholm Junior Water Prize for revolutionizing method to remove electronic waste from water
Ericsson Mobility Report: 70 percent of world’s population using smartphones by 2020
Global E-Waste Management Market, Material (Metals, Plastic, & Glass), Sources (Household Appliances, Entertainment & Consumer Electronics, IT & Telecommunication), industry size, share, growth, trends and forecast 2015-2021

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