At a time when just about everyone in the state is unable to think ‘solar’ without ‘scandal’ automatically following, 15-year-old Deepika Kurup is pursuing the power of the sun for a higher ideal - tackling the world’s water crisis.
“Solar energy is not the scam - it is free - it is the people who make the scam,” declared Deepika, who was named ‘America’s Top Young Scientist’ last year after winning the ‘Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge’, a prestigious science competition for school students in the United States of America.
The young scientist, who is on her summer vacation visiting her maternal grandparents in the city, was talking to mediapersons after her interaction with students at St Mary’s Residential Central School, Poojappura on Tuesday.
Solar energy is the key player in her innovative, sustainable water-purification system, which she developed over three months last summer and which won her the title of ‘Top Young Scientist.’
“I developed a photocatalytic composite of two chemicals - titanium oxide and zinc oxide - which can be made as coating on water bottles,” explained Deepika, who says she was inspired to work on water after seeing children drinking dirty water from stagnant pools on her visits to India, especially Chennai.
“Under the influence of sunlight, a chemical change takes place, producing hydroxyl radicals that destroy certain bacteria and disinfect contaminated water,” she added. “I was able to bring down contamination levels to well below the prescribed environmental norms.”
It would also be cost-effective, she said, costing about half a cent (less than one rupee) per gram of the composite.
“Also, you only need a very thin layer of the coating - less than a millimetre,” said Deepika. “Further, it’s a catalyst and doesn’t get used up in the reaction.”
Since winning the Challenge over a year ago, she hasn’t remained idle. Deepika has used her US $ 25,000 prize money to further her research, improve her project, and even has plans to deploy her innovation in places affected by the water crisis.
“When I submitted it for the competition, my purifier used ultraviolet radiation,” she said. “But over the past year, I’ve developed it in visible light as well, and also to work in the dark.” In fact, with the improvements, it is now patent-pending, she added.
When not working to solve the world’s water crisis, Deepika is busy juggling martial arts lessons, volunteering teaching work and making presentations of her project in other schools and universities. And that is not counting school activities.
“At school, I’m in the Math and Science teams, a technical editor for the school magazine and also on the School Senate,” said Deepika, who is set to enter class 10 at Nashua High School South, New Hampshire.
She is an ardent advocate of promoting science communication, having written for the Huffington Post, and also of encouraging more students, especially girls, to take up science, which is ‘’full of opportunities.’’
“Most girl students at my school are into things like fashion, dancing, sports and cheer-leading, but I think more of them should take up science as well,” she said.
Little wonder then that she was able to strike a chord with US President Barack Obama, who has committed over 3 billion dollars to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
“He told me I was lucky to belong to a culture that placed so much value on learning,” recalled Deepika, who was also an invited participant at the 2013 White House Science Fair.
Deepika is the daughter of Pradeep Kurup, professor of civil engineering at the University of Massachusetts, and Meenakshi Kurup. She has a younger sister, Anjali.