Each year Google hold an international science fair for innovative teens to solve a problem they care about with science. The breakthroughs coming from these young, driven researchers have been as far-ranging and impactful as a method of pulling microplastics out of ocean waters (this year’s grand prize winner) to sensors that help mitigate risk for ambulatory Alzheimer’s’ patients (the grand prize winner from 2014). That year, there was another invention that caught the world’s attention, with the potential to not only provide clean drinking water to some of the most marginalized communities in the world--but to produce electricity at the same time.
According to facts and figures from non-profit organization The Water Project, there are 783 million people worldwide--that’s about one in nine individuals globally--that do not have access to clean drinking water, and one out of every five deaths of children under five years old is directly caused by a water-related disease. In fact, for adults and children alike in developing countries, up to 80 percent of all illnesses are related to poor water and sanitation conditions. The biggest concentration of these cases is found in sub-Saharan Africa, where even 24 percent of healthcare facilities “lack an improved water source within 500 meters, 16 percent lack improved sanitation, and 36 percent lack soap for hand washing.”
It almost goes without saying that those communities living without properly sanitized drinking water are also often living without access to electricity. Both of these factors are major contributors to a continued cycle of poverty. Borgen Magazine reports, in an article titled “Does a Lack of Electricity Keep People Impoverished?” that “1.3 billion people around the world lack access to electricity. The same number of people live in what is considered extreme poverty, living on less than 1.25 dollars a day.” Without proper access to electricity, local economies are stunted due to a number of impacts including lack of advanced industries that need electricity to function, the inability to work and study when night school is not an option due to lack of electric lights, working hours limited by sunlight and no air-conditioning, and the inability to become computer literate. Related: Could The Aramco IPO Kill OPEC?
Furthermore, people are much less likely to be able to get out of a cycle of poverty if they are ill, a likelihood that increases with lack of access to electricity. As Borgen reports, “lack of access to electricity also keeps people impoverished in ways that people in developed countries might take for granted. For example, having refrigerators and stoves is crucial for good health. Without electricity, food cannot be refrigerated or frozen. Buying and storing food in bulk is not an option. [...] Improper storage of food also causes disease and illness such as diarrhea, which kills 2.2 million people around the world every year. People who cannot access electricity have to cook using biomass fuels on open fires. These fuels, from things such as animal waste, charcoal and wood, are extremely toxic when burned.” And crucially, bringing us back to where we started, water treatment becomes much more of a challenge without access to electricity.
This is where 17-year-old Australian high school student Cynthia Sin Nga Lam comes into the picture. Lam was one of just 15 finalists in the worldwide Google Science Fair competition in her year thanks to her innovative device that would be able to solve the problem of electricity production and clean water access in one fell swoop. Her incredible prototype, cleverly called H2Pro, is capable of purifying wastewater while simultaneously using the removed pollutants to produce power. Even better? The entire process is powered by sunlight alone.
Fast Company reports that Lam “started researching renewable electricity generation last year, and quickly realized that she could incorporate water purification into her process.” The report goes on to explain exactly how the device works: “Dirty water goes in one end, and a titanium mesh, activated by the sun, sterilizes the water and sends it through an extra filter. The photocatalytic reaction also splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen–so someone can flip a switch and start feeding a hydrogen fuel cell to produce clean power. Detergent, soap, and other pollutants in the water help make more hydrogen.”
Lam explained the importance of her breakthrough in her own words: “There are some technologies for purifying water that are similar, but you’d need an extra source of electricity,” she was quoted by Fast Company. “For this one, you only need sunlight and titania. It can generate a very efficient source of clean electricity as well.” Related: IEA Sees $90 Crude Ahead Of Oil’s Downfall
Lam’s small-scale, portable prototype is simple, inexpensive to produce, and easy to understand, and therefore easy to maintain and repair, giving the device a long lifespan. But the teen genius has bigger plans for H2Pro as well. “Though Lam built a small, portable prototype, she envisions the same technology could be used at a larger scale,” the report continues. “On a rooftop, for example, wastewater could be sent through a titanium dioxide net and then directed through different pipes to produce power and provide purified water. The tech could also be used along with solar panels to provide even more electricity.”
“I think people around the world don’t really understand how serious water pollution and the energy crisis is,” said Lam at the time of her Google Science Fair accolades. “I’d really like to finalize the design, because it could potentially help people in developing countries. It would be great to have clean water and electricity supplied sustainably, without needing any outside help. It would be awesome.”
Now, just five years after sharing her breakthrough invention with the world, Cynthia Sin Nga Lam is continuing to pursue her life-saving ambitions as a Contract Consultant at World Health Organization. While she is no longer working directly on the H2Pro project, other scientists have carried on in her footsteps. Just this summer, researchers from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia published their development of a system extremely similar to the one that Lam pioneered in 2014 when she was just a teen. “By mounting a water distillation system on the back of a solar cell, engineers have constructed a device that doubles as an energy generator and water purifier,” Science News says of the new device. “While the solar cell harvests sunlight for electricity, heat from the solar panel drives evaporation in the water distiller below. That vapor wafts through a porous polystyrene membrane that filters out salt and other contaminants, allowing clean water to condense on the other side.” Sound familiar?
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the… More