In minutes and with the amount of force it takes to pump air into a bike tire, Shayanth Sinnarajah can make 15 gallons of clean drinking water, referred to in some circles as “blue gold.”
It takes only seconds for the Gulliver Schools graduate to pump the dirty, undrinkable water through a machine where it travels through four filters, each one progressively letting in fewer pollutants, until the water reaches a tank inside the 28-inch by 48-inch cart that contains the water-cleansing system called LiTReS.
Sinnarajah, 18, who will be a freshman at UC Berkeley in the fall, on Thursday siphoned the pristine water into a glass and made a toast with his colleague and friend, Lucia Herrmann, also a recent Gulliver graduate, who is Yale University-bound.
The two are part of a team of 18 students at the Coral Gables school who created the water filtration device based on clean energy that could solve the water crisis in under-developed areas where safe drinking water is a luxury for millions.
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On Sunday, Sinnarajah, Herrmann and engineering teacher and project coach Claude Charron were all in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to attend Rio+20 Summit — an international conference for governmental leaders and industry pioneers to come together on issues affecting the environment and the population of the developing world.
The conference, organized by the United Nations, officially begins Wednesday.
The Gulliver students were invited to present their story of innovation at the U.S. Department of State’s center on Sunday. They were also invited to talk to Rio teens at a local technological school.
The leaders of “Operation Gulliver International” shared a drink of the remarkably clean water together on Thursday, a day before leaving Miami to represent their school, the U.S. and young innovators.
“This is a place where leaders are getting together to see which steps we need to take to adapt to clean energy policies,” said Herrmann, who is spokeswoman for the project.
It all began last summer when, before their senior year in high school, Herrmann and her classmates, inspired by previous students’ projects, got together to come up with a plan to do some innovative work of their own. With the guidance of Charron, they designed, built, created a business model, and sought out potential investors for LiTReS.
In March, the team won first place at the Spirit of Innovation Challenge in Moffett Field, Calif., which named them Pete Conrad Scholars. Invited to learn from the top clean-energy innovators in the country, they caught the eye of the education and outreach director of the Conrad Foundation.
The director encouraged Sinnarajah and Herrmann to make a short video and submit it the Rio+20 committee, who invited the students and their teacher to present at the summit.
“It’s inspired me to continue working harder,” said Charron, who is also the science department chair at Gulliver. “If it was anything else, I would need a break, but it’s too fun, and they’re doing it for the right reasons.”
The roots of the project go back to 2008 when another group of Gulliver students began working on a filtration device to send to a pediatric hospital in Haiti. When a working prototype was ready to be sent, disaster struck. The February 2010 earthquake crushed the hospital and killed most of the people who would have benefited from the system.
After that, Gulliver students were forced to redesign their system, and eventually a better water filtration system was sent to a home for more than 300 children housed by Friends of the Orphans in Haiti.
The challenges presented by the earthquake marked a turning point for Charron and his students, who in 2011 put even more effort into creating a cleaner, more affordable and possibly mass-produced system that could help in potential disasters. Herrmann made countless calls to promote the project and find liaisons that could help realize the project.
Sinnarajah and the team examined each part to see what could be improved. Now the system is portable, durable and affordable and can remove 99.9% of bacteria and viruses.
“We put ourselves out there to come up with a completely new design, even though we only made minor adjustments,” said Sinnarajah.
The entire system cost about $500, a large reduction in cost from the typical solar-panel powered filtration systems that cost five times as much and are more difficult to maintain.
Two patents for LiTReS were filed in 2012, by a Gulliver student, Alexa Swung. Now the students are working on a visual manual that would make it easier to operate.
“It’s good, but it could always be better,” Sinnarajah said.