When she was 11, Rachel Brouwer was on hiking trip with her family in New Hampshire when she had an idea. She saw signs warning visitors not to drink water from a nearby lake as it was contaminated. The warning hit close to home for the Bedford Academy student.
“That really opened things up for me,” say the now 13 year old. “At the same time I was reading the I am Malala book and in that book many women and girls were dying of the cholera outbreak. That really inspired me and then I just started researching and I really wanted to make a difference.”
Brouwer got working on a water-filtration system. She started with just cotton filters and rocks and charcoal and worked her way up to a system that uses solar pasteurization to kill the bacteria. Her system has an indicator made from soybean wax that changes colour when it reaches a certain temperature. She created a prototype of that system. She doesn’t have a patent yet, but is looking to crowd sourcing to fund the significant costs.
Brouwer took her project to the Canada-Wide Science Fair where she won the gold medal, as well as the award for the Best Junior Environmental Project Challenge.
Rachel’s mom, Pam, says her daughter has always been into fixing things and learning how to put things together. But she enjoyed her commitment to this project was, even if it meant plumbing supplies often cluttered the living room. “I was really impressed with how dedicated she was to actually learn more about it and she just kept at it,” Pam Brouwer says. “It was two full years until she got it to where it is now.”
Bedford Magazine talked with Rachel about her invention, plans for the project and her long-term goals.
Besides winning the gold medal at the science fair, did your project get any interest?
Before I went to the Canada-wide fair, I tested my project in Varadero, Cuba. I left a manual and a small wax indicator with a man in Cuba to try out. And also in a couple of weeks my system will be going to be tested in Kenya, Africa, to be tested at a girls’ school.
How does that make you feel?
It’s really exciting. I just want to finally to get there. It’s been over a long process where that happened. I am excited to finally get it there. I talked with Chat to the Future [a nonprofit that connects schools in North American with students in Africa] and Face Timed [founder Adam McKim] and he’s really interested. If I can bring my project to the next level, there’s a possibility I could be working with them. It all started out as a dream and now it’s actually becoming something and it could be actually helping people. That’s the overall goal. It’s just unbelievable. I never thought it could get to this point.
How is your system different than other water-filtration systems?
There are four components to my system. It combines a bunch of methods or ways that have already been created, but making it into one larger system. There is one thing I designed… but it’s combining different things. First there is the hand pump, and that’s already out there. That’s just eliminates the amount of travel that is done to walk to collect water. And then it goes into the filter and cotton and charcoal filters are already out there. But depending on what area you are using the filter in, you need to run the water through a filter that will remove the impurities or you can’t use solar pasteurization. If you don’t filter impurities out of the water, the sun will still heat the water up and the indicator will say your water is clean, but actually the bacteria is latched onto the dirt particles and it hides in the particles.
So what are your plans for the system?
I am looking into 3D printing part of my system. I don’t have it professionally made yet. That is the closest I can get to having it designed. Once I can get to that point, then it will be looking into Chat to the Future.
Was this an interest of yours before the hike that inspired the idea?
I always thought about those other countries, but not until I read the I am Malala book. I didn’t think about it a lot up to that point, but since then it’s all I can think about.
What about school and your teachers. Did they help?
They told me what a science fair project needed to have …like a social application and how I can relate my work to people in other countries or people here. That was really a big thing they helped me with.
What were the challenges?
There were a lot of challenges. Mostly design challenges, really. As I kept going with the design I had to learn more and that wasn’t the hard part. It was just figuring out what would work, what was cost efficient.
Does it occupy a lot of your time?
Yes. Over March Break instead of having a March Break, I went to Cuba and every single day I tested my project. The week I wasn’t away I did more work on my science fair project. During science-fair time I was thinking about it every day. It takes a lot of time and dedication.
Is this something you’d like to pursue as an adult?
Definitely. I want to go to Kenya and those countries through Me to We, but I have to wait until I am older. I feel like I need to see it to actually design it. It would be better to see what living standards are like there, to know what to adjust or make different. To see it to do it. That is a goal for me.