A childhood trip to India changed the life of high-school senior Apoorv Khandelwal. Now it could change billions of other lives, too.
When Apoorv Khandelwal was little, his family took him to visit relatives in India. The sight of a woman walking miles in the heat with two clay pots on her head just to get clean water astonished the boy, so much that he spent most of his middle-school years pondering ways to help.
Last month, Khandelwal, now a senior at Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, learned that he had been singled out as a finalist — one of only 40 nationwide — in the Regeneron Science Talent Search because he has figured out a new way to remove salt from seawater.
In March, he’ll travel to Washington, D.C., to compete against 39 other brainiacs, all of them chosen for the world-changing potential and scientific rigor of their projects. If Khandelwal survives a gantlet of questioning and wins the top prize of $250,000, he could help provide a new source of potable water to entire continents.
Education Lab caught up with the high-school senior to ask about his work, inspiration and where it all came from.
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Ed Lab: Did that memory of the woman walking to a well for clean water actually drive your interest in science?
Khandelwal: I’ve always been somewhat of a tinkerer. Even during elementary school I tinkered with things to improve them, rather than purchasing new ones if something broke. But my love for science definitely grew during high school.
Ed Lab: What’s the name of your project?
Khandelwal: [laughs] Molecular Dynamics Simulation and Experimental Fabrication of Nanoporous Graphene Membranes for Optimal Water Permeability in Reverse Osmosis Desalination.
Ed Lab: Wow. What does that mean?
Khandelwal: The provision of clean water is a significant global challenge — there’s limited availability for nearly half of the world’s population. And because less than 1 percent of the water on Earth is fresh water, reverse desalination is the obvious answer. But the process is very expensive, especially for developing nations.
My AP Environmental Science class helped me understand the difficulty of finding solutions for global problems and prompted me to ask questions. That was in 10th grade. By then, I’d realized that membrane thickness was an important factor, and I’d learned that by introducing nanoscale holes into this material called graphene — holes hundreds of thousands of times narrower than the thickness of a piece of paper — you could allow water molecules to flow through while blocking the larger salt ions.
But graphene is very difficult to work with. At one point I wasn’t even sure if I would continue this experiment. But my teachers egged me on to continue exploring.
Ed Lab: So did you actually make a graphene filter?
Khandelwal: First, I modeled one on supercomputers to prove the viability. Then, the following year I actually grew graphene membranes. But then there were rips and tears so large that salt ions could flow through. So, essentially, I patched the holes with nylon polymers and metals.
Ed Lab: I’m going to take a wild leap and guess that you’re headed to a science-oriented college?
Khandelwal: Yes, I hope so. I’m still waiting to hear from a lot of places.
Ed Lab: What about your family? Are they involved in your studies and discoveries?
Khandelwal: My parents are both engineers, and they’ve always fostered my education in science. They think it’s really important — not just to learn in school, but also in applying these tools to help the world.
Ed Lab: So how do they feel about the trip to D.C.? Are they going?
Khandelwal: They are so excited — I think even more than I am.