As a swimmer, Burnsville High School student Suraj Shah has always loved water. But he had never thought about the global shortage of drinkable water until last fall, when he began considering possible science fair projects for biology class.
He decided to create a portable water filter. Since then, his idea has taken him to an international science fair and into meetings with a patent attorney, where he's discussing patenting it.
"I've always wanted to do something that benefits the community and the environment," said Shah, who will be a junior.
Shah decided last fall that he wanted to create a portable water filter so that people in places like in sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti, as well as those affected by natural disasters, could purify water themselves using an inexpensive hand-held device.
His device uses a syringe-like design to pump water through pieces of PVC pipe and through a 3M filter.
Early in the process, Shah went to see Sue Borne, his former middle school teacher in Metcalf Junior High's STEM Magnet program. While there, he had a brainstorm after spotting a syringe in her classroom.
"I knew I needed to create pressure," he said. If the device was to be portable and cheap, it couldn't use a generator for electricity.
He thought that if he could "make a large-scale syringe, that would be pretty simple and effective as well," he said.
"A lot of inventions require a bit of luck," he added.
He consulted with an engineer at 3M, who told him about different ways to filter water. Then he made a trip to Home Depot with his parents and began creating a prototype, emphasizing affordability.
His design costs about $20 to make using materials purchased at retail prices, but could be as inexpensive as $10 to manufacture on a larger scale, he estimates.
Using pond water from his backyard, he completed nitrate and phosphate testing on water that had gone through the filter. The water had "close to zero" parts per million of the two minerals, he said.
He said that "anyone from age 5 to 80 could use this. You don't have to use extraneous force."
Last month, Shah took his idea, along with the paper he wrote for class, to the International Sustainable World (Engineering, Energy & Environment) Project Olympiad (I-SWEEEP) in Houston, Texas. He won an Honorable Mention in the engineering category.
Since then, he's thought about making small improvements to the design and trying it out using dirtier water sources.
Along with his parents, he recently met with a patent attorney to discuss whether the idea is patentable.
Shah said that he hopes to be a biomedical or chemical engineer one day, an interest that developed after spending three years in Borne's STEM classes, which focus on engineering.
"I like engineering because it's not a sit-at-your desk job. You're working to build something that will eventually serve a purpose," he said.
Borne called Shah's water filter "innovative" and wasn't surprised that he came up with the idea. Shah and a team of students last year were state winners for a green roof project they created for a STEM competition sponsored by the U.S. Army.
"He's so intuitive," she said, noting that even though he's no longer in junior high, "he keeps coming back and he's asking questions and making connections." His portable water filter can "go so many ways to help people in need. Water is such a precious commodity."
Hiren Shah, Suraj's dad, said he was impressed with the discipline his son showed with the project. "He's really challenged himself," he said.
Shah is already thinking about potential I-SWEEEP projects for next year, and he would also like to enter the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. He may modify his filter for next year's project or come up with something entirely new, he said.
He's excited by the success he's had with this project, but only a little surprised, he said.
"I knew initially that I wanted to put a lot of time into it," he said. "I think the effort paid off."