11-year-old invents lead detection method

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Lone Tree, Colorado, has just won the annual Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for inventing a quick, reliable way to detect lead in household drinking water.  From Business Insider:

“The idea just came to me when I saw my parents testing for lead in our water,” Rao, a seventh-grader, told Business Insider. “I went, ‘Well, this is not a reliable process and I’ve got to do something to change this.’”

Over the course of the summer, Rao worked with 3M scientists to bring her proposed sensor to life. The device, which Rao named Tethys after the Greek goddess for water, uses carbon nanotubes to detect the presence of lead. She tuned, or “doped,” the carbon nanotubes specifically to detect lead, pairing the device with a mobile app displaying the water’s status.

Many have heard of the notorious problem of lead contamination at Flint, Michigan, which first hit the national news in 2014.  Perhaps less well-known is that the problem of lead-contaminated drinking water afflicts thousands of water systems throughout the United States, including major cities such as Philadelphia.  And lead poisoning has been associated with all sorts of health problems, including learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, seizures and in extreme cases, even death.

Prior to Rao’s invention, existing lead detection methods were either not very accurate or extremely time-consuming.  It might be worthwhile for this new invention to be refined and perfected if necessary, and then made widely available by local city governments.  As economists and others know, there are sometimes problems in moving new technologies from original idea to invention all the way through to commercial feasibility.  But if this new invention is as promising as it sounds, it may merit fast-tracking and government support in order to benefit potentially millions of people.

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Mark Kanazawa

I am Wadsworth A. Williams Professor of Economics at Carleton College, Northfield, MN