Pure Genius

The 18-year-old who wants citizens to test water safety

Posting in Science

An 18-year-old from New Jersey has developed a low-cost, portable method for the public to test water potability.

As a storm raged in Short Hills, N.J., in 2007, Alison Bick listened to a radio broadcast warning residents that potentially-contaminated water was being piped into homes. Now 18, Bick was "the science go-to person" in her group of friends, so she wasn't surprised when a pal called with a question: Can we determine if the water in our house is safe to drink? There wasn't a method for citizens to test their home's water quality, Bick said. But she told her friend, "That's a really interesting question."

Her interest piqued, Bick decided to research the topic. Now the 2011 U.S. winner of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize, Bick has since developed a low-cost, portable method for the public to test water potability. The water is put into a device and the user snaps a cell phone picture of it. "I created a way to test water quality using your cell phone," Bick said in an interview. "The user would take a picture of water and the cell phone analyzes it."  From there, it determines whether E. Coli or coliform bacteria are present in the water.

The device can be used worldwide, Bick said, from developing countries to the United States. At home, the device could test water quality in the event of a natural disaster. In developing countries, citizens with cell phones -- but no water testing labs -- could test their own drinking water before consumption.

As the U.S. recipient of the water prize, Bick received $3,000 and a trip to Stockholm where she'll face off against national winners from more than 30 countries in the international competition during World Water Week in August. Bick, who graduated from high school in June, said her award is a long-awaited honor. "I entered this competition every year in high school," she said. "This is the first time I was selected."

In the fall, Bick is off to Princeton University, where she'll study chemical engineering. She plans to continue working in the water field and hopes to advance her project. The next steps for the device? Test it in the real-world, perhaps in a developing country. And find a way to test for other bacteria, so that the device can determine with 100 percent certainty that water is potable and safe.

Photo: Mohamed Dahab, chair of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize Review Committee, and Alison Bick

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure