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TEDWomen 2016

Deepika Kurup: A young scientist's quest for clean water

Filmed:

Deepika Kurup has been determined to solve the global water crisis since she was 14 years old, after she saw kids outside her grandparents' house in India drinking water that looked too dirty even to touch. Her research began in her family kitchen -- and eventually led to a major science prize. Hear how this teenage scientist developed a cost-effective, eco-friendly way to purify water.

- Inventor, student scientist
Water is the basis of life, and too many people around the world suffer from waterborne illnesses. Deepika Kurup is working to change that. Full bio

Every summer, my family and I
travel across the world,
00:12
3,000 miles away
00:17
to the culturally diverse
country of India.
00:19
Now, India is a country infamous
for its scorching heat and humidity.
00:22
For me, the only relief from this heat
is to drink plenty of water.
00:27
Now, while in India,
00:32
my parents always remind me
to only drink boiled or bottled water,
00:34
because unlike here in America,
00:39
where I can just turn on a tap
and easily get clean, potable water,
00:41
in India, the water is often contaminated.
00:46
So my parents have to make sure
00:49
that the water we drink is safe.
00:51
However, I soon realized
00:54
that not everyone is fortunate enough
00:56
to enjoy the clean water we did.
00:59
Outside my grandparents' house
in the busy streets of India,
01:03
I saw people standing in long lines
01:07
under the hot sun
01:09
filling buckets with water from a tap.
01:11
I even saw children,
01:15
who looked the same age as me,
01:17
filling up these clear plastic bottles
01:19
with dirty water
from streams on the roadside.
01:22
Watching these kids
01:26
forced to drink water
01:28
that I felt was too dirty to touch
01:30
changed my perspective on the world.
01:33
This unacceptable social injustice
01:36
compelled me to want to find a solution
01:40
to our world's clean water problem.
01:43
I wanted to know
why these kids lacked water,
01:46
a substance that is essential for life.
01:50
And I learned that we are facing
01:52
a global water crisis.
01:55
Now, this may seem surprising,
01:58
as 75 percent of our planet
is covered in water,
02:00
but only 2.5 percent
of that is freshwater,
02:04
and less than one percent
of Earth's freshwater supply
02:08
is available for human consumption.
02:12
With rising populations,
02:15
industrial development
and economic growth,
02:17
our demand for clean water is increasing,
02:20
yet our freshwater resources
are rapidly depleting.
02:23
According to the
World Health Organization,
02:27
660 million people in our world
02:30
lack access to a clean water source.
02:34
Lack of access to clean water
is a leading cause of death
02:37
in children under the age of five
in developing countries,
02:41
and UNICEF estimates that 3,000 children
02:44
die every day from
a water-related disease.
02:47
So after returning home
one summer in eighth grade,
02:52
I decided that I wanted
to combine my passion
02:55
for solving the global water crisis
02:58
with my interest in science.
03:00
So I decided that the best thing to do
03:03
would be to convert my garage
into a laboratory.
03:05
(Laughter)
03:11
Actually, at first I converted
my kitchen into a laboratory,
03:13
but my parents didn't really approve
and kicked me out.
03:16
I also read a lot of journal papers
on water-related research,
03:21
and I learned that currently
in developing countries,
03:25
something called solar disinfection,
03:28
or SODIS, is used to purify water.
03:31
In SODIS, clear plastic bottles
are filled with contaminated water
03:34
and then exposed to sunlight
for six to eight hours.
03:39
The UV radiation from the sun
03:43
destroys the DNA
of these harmful pathogens
03:45
and decontaminates the water.
03:48
Now, while SODIS is really easy to use
and energy-efficient,
03:51
as it only uses solar energy,
03:55
it's really slow,
03:57
as it can take up to two days
when it's cloudy.
03:59
So in order to make
the SODIS process faster,
04:02
this new method called photocatalysis
04:05
has recently been used.
04:09
So what exactly is this photocatalysis?
04:11
Let's break it down:
04:14
"photo" means from the sun,
04:15
and a catalyst is something
that speeds up a reaction.
04:17
So what photocatalysis is doing
04:20
is it's just speeding up
this solar disinfection process.
04:23
When sunlight comes in
and strikes a photocatalyst,
04:27
like TiO2, or titanium dioxide,
04:30
it creates these
really reactive oxygen species,
04:34
like superoxides, hydrogen peroxide
and hydroxyl radicals.
04:37
These reactive oxygen species
04:42
are able to remove bacteria and organics
04:44
and a whole lot of contaminants
from drinking water.
04:47
But unfortunately,
there are several disadvantages
04:51
to the way photocatalytic SODIS
is currently deployed.
04:55
See, what they do is they take
the clear plastic bottles
04:59
and they coat the inside
with this photocatalytic coating.
05:02
But photocatalysts like titanium dioxide
05:07
are actually commonly used in sunscreens
05:10
to block UV radiation.
05:13
So when they're coated
on the inside of these bottles,
05:15
they're actually blocking
some of the UV radiation
05:18
and diminishing the efficiency
of the process.
05:20
Also, these photocatalytic coatings
05:24
are not tightly bound
to the plastic bottle,
05:26
which means they wash off,
and people end up drinking the catalyst.
05:29
While TiO2 is safe and inert,
05:34
it's really inefficient
if you keep drinking the catalyst,
05:37
because then you have
to continue to replenish it,
05:39
even after a few uses.
05:42
So my goal was
to overcome the disadvantages
05:44
of these current treatment methods
05:47
and create a safe, sustainable,
05:49
cost-effective and eco-friendly
method of purifying water.
05:51
What started off as an eighth grade
science fair project
05:57
is now my photocatalytic composite
for water purification.
06:00
The composite combines
titanium dioxide with cement.
06:05
The cement-like composite can be formed
into several different shapes,
06:09
which results in an extremely
versatile range of deployment methods.
06:13
For example, you could create a rod
06:18
that can easily be placed
inside water bottles for individual use
06:20
or you could create a porous filter
that can filter water for families.
06:24
You can even coat the inside
of an existing water tank
06:29
to purify larger amounts of water
06:33
for communities
over a longer period of time.
06:35
Now, over the course of this,
06:39
my journey hasn't really been easy.
06:41
You know, I didn't have access
to a sophisticated laboratory.
06:43
I was 14 years old when I started,
06:47
but I didn't let my age deter me
06:50
in my interest
in pursuing scientific research
06:53
and wanting to solve
the global water crisis.
06:56
See, water isn't
just the universal solvent.
06:59
Water is a universal human right.
07:03
And for that reason,
07:07
I'm continuing to work
on this science fair project from 2012
07:08
to bring it from the laboratory
into the real world.
07:12
And this summer,
I founded Catalyst for World Water,
07:15
a social enterprise aimed at catalyzing
solutions to the global water crisis.
07:19
(Applause)
07:25
Alone, a single drop of water
can't do much,
07:32
but when many drops come together,
07:36
they can sustain life on our planet.
07:38
Just as water drops
come together to form oceans,
07:42
I believe that we all must come together
07:45
when tackling this global problem.
07:48
Thank you.
07:50
(Applause)
07:52
Thank you.
07:55
(Applause)
07:57

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About the Speaker:

Deepika Kurup - Inventor, student scientist
Water is the basis of life, and too many people around the world suffer from waterborne illnesses. Deepika Kurup is working to change that.

Why you should listen

Deepika Kurup is a scientist, speaker, social entrepreneur and student at Harvard University. She has been passionate about solving the global water crisis ever since she was in middle school. After witnessing children in India drinking dirty water, Kurup developed a water purification system that harnesses solar energy to remove contaminants from water.

Recognized as "America’s Top Young Scientist" in 2012, Kurup won the grand prize in the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. In 2014 she was honored with the "United States President's Environmental Youth Award" and represented the United States in Stockholm, Sweden at the international Stockholm Junior Water Prize. Most recently Kurup was named one of the Forbes' "30 Under 30: Energy" and was the National Geographic Explorer Award Winner in the 2015 Google Science Fair. She attended the 2016 (and 2013) White House Science Fair. Currently she is CEO and founder Catalyst for World Water, a social enterprise aimed at deploying the technology she developed in water-scarce areas. 

Along with research, Kurup is passionate about STEM education, and she feels that STEM education has the power to revolutionize the world. In her free time, she enjoys giving talks and writing articles to encourage students all around the world to pursue science, technology, engineering and math, and to increase awareness of the global water crisis. She has been invited to speak at schools, international conferences and the United Nations. 

More profile about the speaker
Deepika Kurup | Speaker | TED.com