Texas teen’s hard work, dedication recognized by international water community

When electronic waste ends up in landfills, it can pose a very serious threat to water quality in the form of leachate laden with heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. Three years ago, at the age of fifteen, Perry Alagappan of Houston, Texas, saw this firsthand, and it inspired him to take action. With helpful guidance from professors at Rice University’s Barron Lab, he used a process called functionalization to construct a filter to remediate heavy metals.

Oct 1st, 2015

We sure do love our technology - our computers, our cell phones, and all those batteries needed to power them. But as our love affair with the newest gadgets and gizmos has intensified, so has the amount of electronic waste we generate. When those once-shiny and exciting toys end up in landfills, they can pose a very serious threat to water quality in the form of leachate laden with heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. It’s a global problem and it’s growing - particularly in developing countries that have become the final resting place for much of the world’s obsolete and discarded technologies.

Three years ago, at the age of fifteen, Perry Alagappan of Houston, Texas, saw this firsthand and it inspired him to take action.

“The first time I was really exposed to the challenges of water purification was when I went to India,” he said in a recent interview with the Stockholm International Water Institute. During a summer visit to his grandparents’ village, Alagappan said he was shocked to learn how difficult it was to remediate heavy metal pollution. The problem, he explained, is that these toxic heavy metals - like mercury, cadmium, and lead - are inorganic compounds that can’t be degraded or destroyed.

“I was really interested in the topic of water purification and what I could do for it,” Alagappan said. So he combined this objective with his budding interest in nanotechnology and sought out a research facility where he could explore solutions.

After a lot of effort and countless emails, Alagappan was granted access to a research facility at Rice University. “I spent a year there conducting research on this material called carbon nanotubes, which are basically sheets of carbon atoms that have been rolled up to form tubes,” he said. “And at that point, I realized they could be used for some really great applications, such as water filtration.” With helpful guidance from professors at Rice University’s Barron Lab, Alagappan used a process called functionalization to construct a filter to remediate heavy metals.

“The filter is composed of these carbon nanotubes and they’re embedded in this sort of wool material,” he explained. The course wool is the substrate for the medium, serving as a solid support for the functionalized nanotubes.

“The idea is that you take contaminated water and just pour it through that filter medium,” he explained. “And then below, you get clean water.”

Alagappan’s filter can remove 99% of heavy metal contaminants. And it costs around $20 to make.

But the really cool thing, he said, is that it’s renewable. “With this filter,” he explained, “you can regenerate it and then you can extract the metals and use them for other applications.” The filter can subsequently be reused.

If you think Alagappan’s invention is pretty awesome, you’re in very good company. This year, his impressive project landed him top honors in the 19th annual Stockholm Junior Water Prize competition. He was selected from a field of fifty-nine students, aged 15-20, from 29 countries.

Rather than patent his solution, Alagappan said he plans to publish his research as an open source technology. “So hopefully, that way, people can use this and readily build upon it.”

His advice to other students interested in competing for the Stockholm Junior Water Prize: “Water is a huge issue and we may not really realize it when we turn on the tap and get clean water. If we don’t take action, then it’s going to be a major problem. So keep working hard and you really can change the world.”

Angela Godwin

Chief Editor, WaterWorld

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