• 10.25.13

Meet The Inspiring 18-Year-Old Who Built A Simple Water Purifier That Could Save Lives

A busy university professor didn’t have time to work closely with his high school student intern. So he sent her off to figure out her own project. What happened next will make you feel good about the future.

Meet The Inspiring 18-Year-Old Who Built A Simple Water Purifier That Could Save Lives

If you’re worried about the state of the planet, fear not. The next generation has it covered.


Meet Meghan Shea, an 18-year-old from West Chester, Pennsylvania. Working largely on her own, she’s come up with a cheap, effective water filter that could be a help to millions of people, if developed fully. It’s the sort of thing that makes you feel better about the future.

Two summers ago, Shea was on a summer science fellowship at Texas Tech University. She was supposed to be working with a microbiologist professor. But he was too busy, and she was sent off to work on her own, with the vague mission of looking into “water purification.” Shea started reading about moringa oleifera, a commonly occurring tropical tree. Moringa seeds had been identified as a possible low-cost purification material, but never really developed seriously.

Shea thought she would try. She took old PVC piping and made a device with four layers: moringa seeds crushed into a powder, soil, charcoal and fabric. She then tested it with water full of E. coli bacteria and another full of contaminants. She found that her device took out 99% of the bacteria, and 70% of the coloration. The seeds act as a sort of coagulant: Unwanted material bunches together as it comes into contact with the Moringa and can’t pass through the other layers.

Popular Mechanics recently awarded Shea its “Next Generation” prize at its Breakthrough Innovator Awards.

Shea says she’s been obsessed with science since the age of six, telling everyone how she’s going to be a biologist one day. This summer, she was in Kenya on another science trip and got a chance to speak to several locals about her idea. She particularly likes that families can build their own version. “The beauty is we can make this device out of anything, because it’s the material we put into the device, not necessarily the device itself, that purifies the water,” she says.

Shea has just started as a freshman at Stanford University and hopes to keep working on filter further, and eventually get it out into the world–either as a physical device, or a piece of intellectual property others can make their own.

“I found something with so much potential, it seems silly to stop working on it, until i come up with a device that can begin to be used. The trick will be in disseminating the information to people using it,” she says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.