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Oregon Teen Discovers Cheap Way to Make Saltwater Drinkable

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A high school student in Portland, Oregon, has found a much cheaper and easier method to turn salt water into drinkable fresh water, bypassing existing methods. His research has caught the attention of major technology companies and universities, such as Intel and MIT.

Chaitanya Karamchedu, or Chai as he prefers to be called, is a senior at Jesuit High School. He is young, and he has big plans. 

"1 in 8 people do not have access to clean water, it's a crying issue that needs to be addressed," said Karamchedu.

"The best access for water is the sea, so 70 percent of the planet is covered in water and almost all of that is the ocean, but the problem is that's saltwater… scientists looked at desalination, but it's all still inaccessible to places and it would cost too much to implement on a large scale."

Karamchedu has done at his high school what teams of experts in high-tech laboratories with deep pockets have not: find a cheap way to desalinate water. 

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"Sea water is not fully saturated with salt," he explained, so he added a polymer that bonds with and then absorbs the salt molecules in the water. Previously, scientists have tried to break the bonds between salt and water, with little success.

"People were concentrated on that 10 percent of water that's bonded to the salt in sea and no one looked at the 90 percent that was free," said Karamchedu's biology teacher Dr. Lara Shamieh. "Chai just looked at it and said if 10 percent is bonded and 90 is free, why are we so focused on this 10 percent, let's ignore it and focus on 90."

In other words, salt water is 90 percent drinkable, and Karamchedu's polymer isolates that drinkable water from water molecules that have bonded with salt, purifying it.

Breaking molecular bonds is difficult and expensive, and Karamchedu's technique sidesteps the technology. "What this is compared to current techniques, is that it's cheap and accessible to everyone, everyone can use it," said Shamieh.

As an added bonus, the salt byproduct of Karamchedu's method can be used as a biodegradable fertilizer.

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For his work, Karamchedu has received a $10,000 award from Intel's International Science Fair and took second place at MIT's TechCon Conference. He also received a $2,000 grant from the Regeneron Science Talent Search, one of 300 high schoolers to receive the prestigious honor.

"They were very encouraging, they could see things into it that I couldn't, because they've been working their whole lives on this," said Karamchedu.

Clean water, a resource that water.org estimates is denied to some 663 million people worldwide, is not Karamchedu's only area of interest. He also seeks to eradicate cancer. 

"He's working on at least mentally thinking about the idea of killing cancer cells from the inside out. I keep telling him to remember his high school biology teacher when he wins the Nobel prize," said Shamieh.

"I can really see beauty in things that aren't immediately applicable, and at the same time I want to do something to make a difference that's not completely in the abstract. It's important what you do has an impact on people," Karamchedu added.

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