High School Junior Invents Breakthrough Water Purification Test


In 2012, when Jack Andraka was 15, he made national headlines after winning the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with a new cancer detection test that is capable of detecting pancreatic cancer 168 times faster than current methods. His test, a simple urine dip stick that measured for a key biomarker called mesothelin, is 400 times more sensitive and 26,000 times less expensive than currently available tests. His invention also proved to be able to detect ovarian and lung cancers. He won $75,000 in the science fair, which his parents insisted he put into his college savings account, and landed appearances on TEDx, BBC, The Colbert Report, and others.

Fast forward two years and Jack Andraka is up on the main stage again, this time accepting a $50,000 first place prize for winning the Siemens We can Change The World Challenge. For this contest, Andraka, still just a Junior in high school, created a water purification test that is capable of detecting harmful water pollutants. His test is a credit card sized dip stick that can detect the presence of mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, glyphosate, and atrazine, all harmful industrial pollutants. The new test is 200,000 times cheaper than current standard water purification tests.

However, Andraka’s science fair entry was not just a detection test.  Recognizing that identifying harmful contaminants would not solve problems for people living in affected areas, he also developed a cheap water filtration system that can be made out of discarded soda bottles or other readily available materials. The filter was tested and removed harmful concentrations by 90 percent, to under the EPA’s minimum concentration levels.

Andraka is now working on a smartphone-based app that will read and publish the results of the water purification test to the internet, as well as forward the information to local public health officials.

What’s next for Andraka? He is currently leading a team of three high school students competing for the top prize in the Tricorder X Prize. The team, called Generation Z, met at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair that Andraka won. In the above video, Andraka’s team mate Neil Jain explains the team’s goals. For this project, Andraka reports that he is building a smartphone-sized device that will combine MRI, ultrasound, and blood test functionality into a device capable of diagnosing a number of conditions. He is leading the team with no funding, and no formal support from the scientific community. 

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