A 16-Year-Old Inventor Finds A Greener Way To Clean Water

Sep 18, 2014

Deepika Kurup of Nashua shows off samples of the composites she's developed for water purification. These composites use solar energy to filter water in a way Kurup says is greener and more cost-effective than traditional methods of purifying water.
Credit Brady Carlson, NHPR

A 16 year old inventor from New Hampshire has caught the attention of federal environmental officials.

Deepika Kurup of Nashua has won a President’s Environmental Youth Award from the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency for her work in finding sustainable ways to purify water.

She joined us to talk about her invention.

How does this method that you’ve developed work?

“What I’ve created is called a photocatalytic pervious composite. Photocatalytic meaning it’s harnessing solar energy, and the pervious composite meaning it’s filtering water as well.

So the composite does part of the work, the filtering does part of the work?

The composite is a filter, called titanium dioxide, that accelerates this reaction that’s taking place, which eventually kills the bacteria that’s in waste water, and also destroys organics.

There are a lot of different ways to try to purify water. How would this be more sustainable and more useful in a country where there isn’t a lot of clean water compared to more traditional methods?

Traditionally, to purify waste water, they use chlorine, and chlorine can create harmful byproducts. My method, it doesn’t create any toxic byproducts. Also, you have to keep replenishing the chlorine, you have to keep putting chlorine into the waste water to purify it. My method is reusable, because it’s a catalyst, and a catalyst doesn’t get used up in the reaction. Theoretically you can keep using my composite forever.

Also, one of the main advantages is that it’s cost-effective. That’s especially useful when you’re using it in developing countries.

I read that you’ve been interested in clean water from an early age. How did you first learn about it and what drew you to it?

My family and I visit India every summer; we have relatives there. I would always see my parents – they would have to boil the water before we drank it. And in America, we don’t have to do that, I can just drink tap water straight from the tap. I also saw children on the streets of India, and they don’t have access to the clean water that we have. Instead, they take these little plastic bottles and they’re forced to fill it up with the dirty water they see on the street. And they’re forced to drink that water, because they don’t have another choice.

And then I go back to America and I can instantly get tap water. That’s initially how I got motivated – by seeing these people, especially these children, who don’t have the clean water that I have.

We mentioned that you were in Washington, accepting this award, and you were also recently in Sweden, as part of a completion. Do you talk with people in other places and say, I wish we had something like that in New Hampshire, or do they say, I wish we had something like what you have in New Hampshire where I live?

On that topic, there’s actually this competition called the Intel Science and Engineering Fair. Unfortunately New Hampshire is one of the two states that does not qualify for this competition. When I go to the Stockholm Junior Water Prize Competition everyone talks about, oh are you going to this ISEF? And I have to say, unfortunately in New Hampshire you can’t compete for this. But the coordinators of the New Hampshire Science and Engineering Fair have been trying really hard to try and bring New Hampshire up to the level where we can compete nationally, and I think that will be happening this year. And I’m really excited about that.

Aside from presentations and competitions, what’s the next in your work here?

The next step – well, at least one of the steps in the future is for me to actually deploy this. It’s one thing to be working in a lab, doing this, and another thing to actually deploy it and see it working in the real world. So that’s one of my steps in the future.