On winning the ARM Wearable Technology Challenge

An international team of high school students creates the AquaeVitae portable water filtration system

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Recently the Global STEM Alliance of the New York Academy of Sciences held its inaugural GSA Summit 2016 for young scientists. Over 200 students from more than 40 countries gathered in New York City from GSA’s two virtual STEM programs: The Junior Academy and 1,000 Girls, 1000 Futures. Students had an opportunity to meet their mentors in person, network, investigate STEM careers and discuss the future of science and innovation.

As part of this weekend, some students entered challenges sponsored by ARM and PepsiCo.

Here, members of the winning team of the ARM Wearable Technology Challenge write about their project and their experience creating it.

The team– Edita Bytyqi of Skopje, Macedonia;Smiti Shah of  New York;Vaidehi Shah of Glasgow, Scotland; and Swadhin Nalubola of Maryland — worked with mentor Ankit Shah, a graduate engineer at ARM in India, to designa portable, wearable water filtration system for use in places that do not have access to clean water. (In the photo above, the students are flanked by Ellis Rubinstein, President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences, on the left, and  DominicVergine, Head of Sustainability and Corporate Responsibility at ARM.)


Edita Bytyqi is a high school senior from Skopje, Macedonia. (Photo by Alison Bert)Edita Bytyqi: “Only one day left to form a team!” said the e-mail from The Junior Academy. I panicked thinking that I will be left without a team and without a project. So when I saw a project that had to do with water purification and involved nanotechnology — a new field of interest for me — I didn’t want to risk losing this place while looking at the other projects, so I immediately clicked “join.”

As a student from Macedonia, when I saw that I would be working with people that study in the United States and the UK, I knew that I had to give more than a 100 percent, given that I hadn’t had the opportunities they were exposed to. We had a video call where I could see their faces. I met my teammates, and we talked about the solution and our experiences. Then we split up the individual research areas and started collaborating.

Vaidehi Shah: Later, the Junior Academy assigned us a mentor: Ankit Shah, a graduate engineer at ARM in India working on power verification of the system. (Mr. Shah was not related to the two of us with that surname on our team.)

The challenge was to create a “low-power, cost-effective, practical, durable, wearable technology for use in low-resource areas to address water, sanitation, and hygiene.” This project was a huge undertaking for all of us.

The path to creation is a winding road

AquaeVitae comes in a backpack to make it easily portable. (Photo by Alison Bert)Vaidehi: We started off with a reverse osmosis membrane since the only thing it lets through is water. Initially, we aimed to clean all types of water, including seawater. However, as we started designing the wearable, we could see that it took a lot of space and was simply not practical. We discarded our hypothesis and removed seawater from our target group.

Edita: We found some alternative solutions like cartridges. The best ones were made from a nylon membrane. Since their pores were the smallest, they would only let through dissolved particles and bacteria, but would filter out the viruses.This seemed to be a great solution since they were available in smaller sizes (mini-cartridges). Our happiness lasted until we got a response from a company that sells them, telling us that the price is not reasonable for our purpose.

We continued researching and came up with ceramic filters; however they were bulky and since the pore size was so small, the flow rate of the water was not optimal for our purpose.

Finally, we came up with activated carbon derived from coconut shell. This would be able to absorb many chemicals in the water, but still be porous enough to ensure a working flow rate.

Smiti Shah is a junior at Bethpage High School in Long Island, New York.Smiti Shah: To attack bacterial and viral contaminants, we relied on nanotechnology. To start we initially had the idea of using a multi-walled carbon nanotube layer on cotton cloth that could conduct electricity. The amperage caused by the solar powered circuit incorporated with the layer of carbon nanotubes is high enough to kill bacteria, but low enough to be safe for humans. It proved successful when we tested it with spring water; coliform bacteria were present pre-filtration, but not post-filtration.

Additionally, we planned on using biosynthesized silver nanoparticles on the cotton to enhance the antibacterial and conductive properties of the filter layer. Due to a lack of lab space, however, we did not have the resources to synthesize and embed the silver on the carbon nanotubes.

Swadhin Nalubola is a junior at Centennial High School inEllicott City, Maryland.Swadhin Nalubola: Since our target was to clean every type of water except for saline water, we needed to add some filter to get rid of bigger particles. That is where the strainer and stainless steel wire mesh come in, on the final design.

We ran tests as soon as the prototype was built to make sure our filter worked. For someone using it, we wanted them to be able to test the water before they drank it. Thus we came up with the idea of using some kind of sensor to indicate whether the water was clean. Our filter was aimed at cleaning the water of pathogens, bacteria, chemicals and particulates. Particulates are easily visible in water, so we needed a sensor that could detect the presence of bacteria, pathogens and chemicals; however, the sensor still had to be low-cost and easy to use.

Balancing practicality with cost

Swadhin: Through research, we found that viral pathogens cannot be detected in water in a simple, low-cost way – every testing system we found that detected pathogens cost at least $40 USD, and involved a long setup and testing period in running a sample of water. At this point, the requirements for the sensor had been narrowed down to a one that detected bacteria and chemicals. The two best options we could use were a pH sensor or a TDS (total dissolved solids) sensor. Since almost all bacteria secrete some form of chemical while in liquid, all the sensors need to do is detect the presence of chemicals that are not regularly found in drinkable water. A pH sensor would do this by measuring the change in pH of the water, while a TDS sensor would do this by measuring the concentration of dissolved solids in the water.

The implementation of a pH sensor turned out to be virtually impossible: between each reading, a pH sensor needs to be cleaned and calibrated with buffer. TDS sensors need to be cleaned less often and are easy to use. The TDS sensor we used was only $12 USD.

Smiti: Since we also wanted to collect data on the location of the use of the filter, we included the Tile Bluetooth Tracker, allowing us to track where the filter is used and make changes based on the needs of the people using it.

Vaidehi Shah is a senior at Craigholme Girls School  in Glasgow, Scotland.Vaidehi: One of the most important things we did was to contact multiple companies and charities who specialized in providing developing countries with clean and potable water.  We wanted to gain a new perspective on how our filter could be used in the world and how we could improve upon what we had to get it to that stage. Mark Bender , Director of Operations for the charity WATERisLIFE, gave us invaluable information on how we would have to go about taking our filter into the real world. He gave us three pieces of advice:

  • Iterate the design
  • Build relationships with communities we want to see it in
  • Educate the youth, as they would be the most open to new ideas.

This advice gave our project a new dimension. We previously had only considered the engineering side, but now we were looking at the human-centered design aspect as well.

Design challenges

Edita: The solution we were working on had its engineering challenges, too. While our methods of filtering water changed, the design of the filter had to be altered. As the deadline was approaching, you could see us have a video call and notice that all the screens were filled with drawings of proposed solutions.

We ended up creating a wearable water filtration device, placed in a backpack that has the following layers:

  • A strainer (to get rid of dust, leaves, and bigger particles)
  • A stainless steel wire mesh (to filter all smaller particles, but still visible to the eye)
  • An electric field formed by the mini-solar panel we built on the bottle (to get rid of bacteria)
  • Multi-walled carbon nanotubes (conductive to form the electric field created by the solar panel, absorbed many pollutants because of the big surface area)
  • Activated carbon (for dechlorination, getting rid of heavy metals, nitrates and nitrites)

Additionally, our prototype has a TDS and a GPS sensor.

Pros (and cons) of global collaboration

Team AquaeVitae accepts their award at the Global STEM Alliance Summit (Photo by Alison Bert)

Edita: As we were researching and working on our hypotheses, deliverables, and Excel sheets, we had to overcome a lot of obstacles, starting from the different time zones we were in. Diverse teams are the best because they have various cultural, academic, personal and geographic differences that make the brainstorming sessions more fruitful; however, there was a scheduling problem with our team spread across three continents. We had to deal with four different time zones:EST (Eastern Standard Time), GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), CET (Central European Time) and IST (Indian Standard Time).

A personal sacrifice I had to make was time. For me, Sunday was not rest day, it was research day. That is when I had left some free time for myself, apart from all the clubs I had to lead and the school exams and SATs I had to take.

Swadhin: The biggest time difference was 10.5 hours, between Smiti and I on EST and Ankit on IST. One of our fondest memories from this project was during a video call when it was Ankit’s turn to sleep late. He had been up for 20 hours, and had work in 5 hours (it was 5 a.m. for him), but he assured us that he could do the video call that day. About 30 minutes in, one of us asked him a question, and we got no response. We could see he was still connected to the call, so there was only one thing it could be — he had fallen asleep mid-call. We all laughed about it, but it’s a testament to how much we sacrificed for this project, especially leading up to the final day, when we had to submit our project.

Vaidehi: I really wish I had Hermione’s time turner! Time was scarce and I had to decide what and how much of my daily activities would have to be swept aside. What tore me apart was deciding between dedicating more time for our project or studying for my final exams. As I was not the only one with upcoming exams, working on the project was a challenge, but one that I enjoyed. I think our passion for our project and encouragement from our mentor motivated us to work through our problems. Overall this experience has taught me a lot more than just science - time management, making compromises for the better and just generally learning how to work in such a diverse team. It has certainly helped me to be more open-minded, and evolve into a better person.

Smiti: One major sacrifice I carried out was not studying for AP exams. I had to finish CADing a prototype, tweaking the design, gathering materials, building the prototype, and test the filter with 14 days left in the challenge. This was all right before three major end-of-the-year standardized exams that would determine if I get credit for taking a college based course in high school. I didn't do as well as I hoped in that, but I gained so much out of learning to sacrifice and make decisions, which helped me grow as a person. I realized that life is about more than the number grade you get, but how you can help create solutions to better the world. I now have skills on being a team player, managing certain small projects to contribute to a bigger team, as well as making due with minimal resources.

Swadhin: Working on this project helped me grow both professionally as a student and personally as an individual. For example, by understanding my teammates’ strengths and interests, I learned to recognize others’ skills and apply those to work toward the common goal. It was clear that we were all motivated students passionate about STEM, but we were also good team players, respectful of each other’s opinions – this was a key to our success as a team.

On a personal level, this project definitely helped me sharpen my time management and organization skills because that was the only way I could juggle working on this project with my school work, as well as academic club, leadership, and sports activities. Although preparation and planning in the concept phase are critical, it is equally important to remain flexible and open to alternative solutions when questions come up during implementation. I am especially proud of the dedication and perseverance of the AquaVitae team.

On being a mentor

Ankit Shah, the team’s mentor, is a graduate engineer at ARM in Bangalore, India.Ankit Shah: My experience working with the team has beenamazing. I still reminiscence going through a lengthy interview process in becoming a mentor for the Junior Academy. During the first video call for mentor training, I was so excited to meet the new pool of experts in nanotechnology, medical sciences and so on from all over the globe, selected to participate as mentors in the challenge.

I paused for a moment, thinking ‘how am I going to do justice to the team that I will be matched with?’Later that week, I was matched with my team, who had decided to work on a water filtration system. Given my background, I had no expertise on the topic of water filtration and thus needed to be prepared with research for the upcoming calls. Initially, everyone had a plethora of ideas which needed refinement based on a pragmatic approach, where I had the opportunity to offermy viewpoints on their ideas. We either discarded those ideas or found an alternative to solve our problem.

Over the course of the challenge, our rationale behind the complete design of the prototype became stronger and began to take shape as a working prototype. We received feedback through a survey designed by the students, whose analysis assisted us in making the right choice for the design. Our morale as a team was boosted when we received critical feedback from Mark Bender, Director of Operations for WATERisLIFE, who pointed us in the right direction to cut down on costs for the prototype to have a real impact. We are working further in that direction as a team.

Over the course of the challenge, my managerial skills improved drastically, and I am lucky to have such a wonderful team who are patient listeners and always took feedback in the right spirit. Yes, it’s true that I have spent some sleepless nights juggling around with office work and attending team meetings, adjusting my schedule as per the team's requirements. It’s all worth the effort when you work as a team to provide practical solutions addressing global needs.

Coming together in New York

The event was held from July 26 to 28 at The New York Academy of Sciences headquarters, on the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center, with panoramic windows overlooking Manhattan.

EditaBytyqi poses with AquaeVitae after the award ceremony at the New York Academy of Sciences, which is on the 40thfloor of 7 World Trade Center.

Edita: I was extremely excited. It was the first time I would be visiting New York. I would officially become part of a community with members such as Charles Darwin and Thomas Edison. But mostly, I would now meet my teammates in the real world. We had been working for 60 days, intensely and nonstop, but without ever seeing each other in person. Sure, we had video calls and saw each other’s pictures on social media, but as advanced as technology may be, it still cannot replace the feeling you get when you meet someone in the physical world.

This experience was an amazing opportunity to collaborate with people from around the world and work on something that I felt passionately about. We all learned so much from this experience and I don’t think any of us will ever forget this project.

What’s next?

AquaeVitae is not over yet. We are keeping our options open and have already considered patenting our design as well as collaborating with other organizations aiming to provide clean and portable water to people all over the globe. Our team has now become like a family, and regardless of the filter’s future, we will continue to work together in making the world a better place.

About AquaeVitae

Learn more about this project on the AquaeVitae website.

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