• 05.20.14

This Genius Kid Has Invented A Device That Quickly Detects Water Contaminants

In his junior year of high school, Jack Andraka is already an inventor of some acclaim. His latest team project, made in a school classroom, is a sensor that could save lives.

This Genius Kid Has Invented A Device That Quickly Detects Water Contaminants

Jack Andraka, the high school junior behind this Intel Science Fair-winning cancer sensor and this handheld device that can detect explosives and environmental contaminants, is now back with yet another invention: a biosensor that can quickly and cheaply detect water contaminants.


Andraka’s microfluidic biosensor, developed with fellow student Chloe Diggs, recently took the $50,000 first prize among high school entrants in the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge. The pair developed their credit card-sized biosensor after learning about water pollution in a high school environmental science class. “We had to figure out how to produce microfluidic [structures] in a classroom setting. We had to come up with new procedures, and we custom-made our own equipment,” says Andraka.

According to Andraka, the device can detect six environmental contaminants: mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, glyphosate, and atrazine. It costs a dollar to make and takes 20 minutes to run, making it 200,000 times cheaper and 25 times more efficient than comparable sensors. For the technical details on the project, check out the proposal here. As part of the project, Diggs and Andraka also developed an inexpensive water filter made out of plastic bottles.

Read the original Jack Andraka story, about his cancer-sensing device, which he developed when he was only 16.

Next, they hope to do large-scale testing for their sensor in Maryland, where they live. They also want to develop a cell-phone-based sensor reader that lets users quickly evaluate water quality and post the test results online.

This isn’t the only project that Andraka has been working on. Along with two other Intel Science Fair finalists, he’s competing in the Tricorder XPrize–a $10 million challenge to develop a device that can diagnose 15 diseases in 30 patients over a three-day period.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.