Spotlight: Youth-led scientific environmental inventions

As youths are left to face the challenges posed by the climate crisis, many climate activists are demanding more action from the government. At the same time, a handful are heading down the STEM-based route by inventing technologies that contribute to sustainable development. The following three individuals have notably advanced our methods of coping with recent environmental issues.

1. Gitanjali Rao (16)

Named TIME’s 2020 Kid of the Year, Gitanjali Rao is a 16-year-old scientist who aspires to use technology to solve global problems. In 2017, Rao was proclaimed America’s Top Young Scientist after winning the annual Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a competition for middle school students in the U.S. to solve an everyday problem with a unique invention.

After hearing about the Flint water crisis in Michigan, Rao decided to create Tethys, an invention that can detect lead contamination in drinking water. The device consists of three parts: a disposable cartridge with carbon nanotube arrays, a signal processor and a smartphone.

According to a report from National Public Radio, “The carbon nanotubes respond to changes in the electron flow. If there is lead in the water, the lead sticks to the carbon ions, creating resistance. Tethys measures that resistance and sends the data to a smartphone app to give the status of lead in water.”

Rao hopes to commercialize her prototype to the market to ensure that everyone has equitable access to clean drinking water.

2. John Estrada (16)

John Estrada was one of 2,000 high school participants in the 2021 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which is administered by the Society for Science. He received the $50,000 Gordon E. Moore Award for Positive Outcomes for Future Generations for his product: the Artificial Intelligence Drought Assessment (AIDA).

AIDA is a robotic arm that directly measures a plant’s drought stress along with its soil moisture and temperature. Using bell peppers for his experiment, the robot’s camera captured the infrared and visible light reflected off the leaves. Using photos from the camera and data from the environmental sensor, Estrada applied five different irrigation levels and was able to create an artificial intelligence system that can predict drought stress.

His computer model collects the data and predicts which plants will be severely impacted by the signs of drought stress. Estrada hopes that the new method will aid farmers in making better irrigation choices early on.

“Using my AIDA model to predict drought stress in plants will not only help farmers conserve our precious water but also allow them to maximize their yield,” Estrada explained in a report to Good News Pilipinas.

3. Hannah Herbst (21)

Hannah Herbst is a social innovator who finished her bachelor’s degree at Florida Atlantic University in 2020. When she was younger, Herbst was inspired by her pen-pal from Sub-Saharan Africa, an area where many do not have access to reliable electricity and energy, and strived to make her model as portable and cost-effective as possible.

At the age of 14, Herbst invented an ocean energy probe prototype named Bringing Electricity Access to Countries through Ocean Energy (BEACON) that is designed to generate usable electricity from ocean currents. This technology is used for water purification and can be a source of power for charging batteries.

“BEACON uses what’s known as a Pelton wheel system — a water turbine — connected to an AC generator to convert the energy produced by ocean currents into electricity” according to EC&M.

After submitting her project, Herbst won the 2015 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and exhibited her research at the 2016 White House Fair.