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Portland teen discovers cost-effective way to turn salt water into drinkable fresh water

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Chaitanya Karamchedu, a Portland teen who is turning heads across the country because of a science experiment. (KPTV) Chaitanya Karamchedu, a Portland teen who is turning heads across the country because of a science experiment. (KPTV)
PORTLAND, OR (KPTV) -

A Portland teen is turning heads across the country all because of a science experiment that began in his high school classroom. Companies like Intel and universities like MIT are now invested in his findings.

With certainty you'll want to remember his name.

"My name is Chaitanya Karamchedu, but you can call me Chai," said the Jesuit High School Senior.

Karamchedu has big plans of changing the world.

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

He made up his mind to address the matter himself.

"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 salt water," said Karamchedu.

Isolating drinkable water from the ocean in a cost effective way is a problem that's stumped scientists for years.

"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 added.

Karamchedu figured it out, on his own, in a high school lab.

"The real genesis of the idea was realizing that sea water is not fully saturated with salt," Karamchedu said.

By experimenting with a highly absorbent polymer, the teen discovered a cost effective way to remove salt from ocean water and turn it into fresh water.

"It's not bonding with water molecules, it's bonding to the salt," said Karamchedu.

It's his creativity that makes this a big deal.

"People have been looking at the problem from one view point, how do we break those bonds between salt and the water? Chai came in and thought about it from a completely different angle," said Jesuit High School Biology Teacher Dr. Lara Shamieh.

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

It's a breakthrough that's estimated to impact millions of lives if ever implemented on a mass scale.

"What this is compared to current techniques, is that it's cheap and accessible to everyone, everyone can use it," said Shamieh.

Scientists across the country are taking note. He won a $10,000 award from the US Agency for International Global Development at Intel's International Science Fair and second place at MIT's TechCon Conference where he won more money to continue his research.

"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.

A contribution to science that's sure to make a difference. Though he's not done yet.

"Now, 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.

"Some problems seem like impossible problems, but to call them impossible problems is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you think about it as impossible, the more impossible it becomes sometimes," said Karamchedu.

A line of thinking, by one gifted teen, that just might cure cancer.

"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.

Back in January, Karamchedu was also named one of 300 Regeneron Science Talent Search Semifinalists. The STS is thought to be one of the most prestigious competitions in nation for high school seniors.

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