Eleven year old girl develops award-winning lead detector to help with the Flint Water Crisis

The Flint Water Plant tower stands in Flint, Mich. The City Council voted Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, to extend a short-term contract for drinking water after requesting more time to comply with a federal judge's order to choose a long-term water source. (Paul Sancya, File/AP)

One spectacular thing about this world is that nowadays the most brilliant minds start young. This can be said about an eleven year old girl named Gitanjali Rao, who, after being alarmed with the water situation in Flint, Michigan, has taken it upon herself to develop a device that can measure the levels of lead in water.

“I had been following the Flint, Michigan, issue for about two years,” Said Rao, according to an article by Lauren Evans on an ABC interview. “I was appalled by the number of people affected by lead contamination in the water and I wanted to do something to change this.”

The Flint, Michigan lead crisis has been a terror since 2014, having affected Flint’s fresh drinking water after the city changed its source of it to come from the Flint River. This had been followed by insufficient treatment of water by government officials and caused over 100,000 Flint residents to be exposed to high levels of lead in their own drinking water. After two years of dealing with this problem spanning through numerous reports of severe lead poisoning, tedious scientific studies finally exposed the toxicity of water levels, deeming it too unsafe to drink. An emergency action took place that year in 2016, permitting residents to only drink bottled or filtered water. This applies to cooking, cleaning and, yes, even bathing and washing. Although in 2017 water levels have become relatively slighter, lead poisoning still exists and well water still advised not to drink. Wikipedia speculates that the pipes, being the main source of this problem, will be replaced but not until the year of 2020.

And so before that will happen, Rao had already sprung into action. Her motivation to make a difference for the Flint community allowed her to accomplish what no regular eleven-year-old would dare to dream. Her invention, the Tethys, is a three part device advanced and sophisticated in design yet simple enough to use. Inexpensive and easy to manufacture, it even has the potential to be mass produced in the market. This of course has rightfully given Rao the title as America’s Top Young Scientist, grabbing the first place prize of $25,000 in the annual 3M Discovery Education Young Scientist Challenge.

When she initially had the concept in her mind, Rao convinced her parents, both engineers, about her own idea of a lead detector; she told them how it would work and her plan to create it. It just so happened that her parents’ own lead tests had disappointed her. The tests made in their own home in Lone Tree, Colorado proved unsuccessful, and, so desperately wanting to help, Rao gave her mother and father her own pitch on a project. They were convinced, and thus they constructed for their little Einstein a big lab space in their basement. All for her to work copiously on what would win her $25,000 in prize money and renown fame.

The hard work birthed the three-part component that could identify lead compounds in water. And with that purpose, the invention earned bonus points for being portable and inexpensive. These carbon nanotubes are sensitive to electron flow and can detect their changes in an instant. The tubes are lined with atoms that have an immeasurable attraction to lead and so adds a great resistance to electron flow. This means that if the tubes are dipped in lead-contaminated water (like in sinks or baths, for instance), the smartphone that reads to the user will announce the signs of lead contamination as the atoms and the lead will react strongly with one another, which disturbs the electron flow significantly. This is measured by what is called the Arduino Processor, and this signals to the smartphone app, which relays to the phone user that the water isn’t safe to drink. The people in Flint would be able to think twice before using a specific source in their home to use water.

This all sounds complicated right? To me it does, and the inventor of this is only eleven years of age. I think we can all safely say that our feelings about our own self-intelligence have dropped slightly after learning what has unraveled from the mind of an eleven year old named Gitanjali Rao. I tip my hat to you, Rao. May you grow up to do great things. And who knows? This will definitely not be her only invention. By the time she’s at least twenty years of age, we’ll all probably be driving hover cars made in her name. Excuse me, future self, please be the first to grab the keys for the world’s first Gitanjali hovercraft.


Joseph Frare is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at joseph.frare@uconn.edu