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Iowa City student recognized by young scientist competition for pollution-reducing invention
Prototype could be a stopgap solution to fight climate change
IOWA CITY — While most people can go a lifetime without knowing what exactly comes out of their car’s tailpipe, ignorance was no match for one Iowa City student’s curiosity.
Iowa City West High School student Shanza Sami, 14, has grown up in a family that has encouraged her pursuits in science. But one event five years ago sparked the interest that captivated her and led her to become an inventor with a promising prototype.
During a trip to India with her parents at age 9, Sami suddenly found herself struggling to breathe. She was hospitalized with pneumonia caused by the air pollution in India, which was substantially worse than what she was used to in Iowa.
Though she hasn’t had any prominent issues with her health since then, the experience continues to motivate her.
“It devastated me to see that other people have to deal with air pollution, especially the underprivileged,” she said.
So with the help of a teacher in her school’s extended learning program, she started developing what was just a passion project: an air filtration device that could reduce emissions from cars — a prime culprit for both air pollution that can cause illnesses and carbon emissions that are fueling climate change. The current equipment on most vehicles, the catalytic converter, hasn’t had a major update since it was widely implemented in the 1970s — and invented decades before.
“It’s a very outdated piece of technology. It didn’t do a good job of making gasses safer for the environment,” Sami said. “I was shocked to find out there hadn’t been any work done on this previously.”
Now, the 14-year-old is hoping to reduce pollution and buy more time to solve climate change problems with an inexpensive add-on she envisions being added by automotive manufacturers or car service chains.
The device, Pura Aerem, won third place in the final round of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge in St. Paul, Minnesota, in October — a competition where hundreds of students apply for a chance to turn their idea into a reality through four months of mentoring with a 3M scientist.
How it works
The Pura Aerem, an add-on to a car’s exhaust system, removed over 99 percent of fine particulate matter compared to exhaust from a car without the device in the student’s tests. Particulate matter is one of the most prevalent parts of exhaust pollution, known to cause a variety of diseases and conditions such as strokes.
“The results were extremely promising,” Sami said.
Through five stages, the device removes particulate matter in the air, encapsulates carbon dioxide, captures water vapor to help power the device and uses ultraviolet light to remove volatile organic compounds and pollutants in the air through a process known as photo-electrochemical oxidation — also called PECO filtration.
But as she works to get the device to market through partnerships with car manufacturers and car service chains, she has to work out a few more kinks. Chief among them are what to do about carbon dioxide and particulate matter absorption that builds up in the device over time, as well as how to give the device the power it needs for the ultraviolet light in the process.
Why does it matter?
Even in a world where many anticipate a transition to electric cars to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change, the device could play an important role as a stopgap. For many years after some drivers make the switch to electric cars, people in the United States and around the world will continue to drive older, gas-powered vehicles.
With less than seven years left on the Climate Clock — the clock that tracks how much time is left before the worst effects of climate change become irreversible — Sami said her device buys more time.
“The time is now to act to combat climate change and air pollution,” she said. “That’s not a lot of time.”
The prototype cost less than $50 to build. As she files for a patent, Sami is hoping to reduce the cost even more, make it efficient to produce en mass and easy for drivers around the world to install.
How she built it
Through weekly meetings, Dr. Patrick Zimmerman, division application scientist at 3M’s automotive and aerospace solutions division, helped the student with no engineering experience think through the obstacles it took to build a prototype in four months.
“When she was (the) developing carbon dioxide absorption part of the device, I encouraged her to think about how exhaust gasses would pass through the chamber,” Zimmerman said. “She asked how can I build this in a way that mimics an exhaust system.”
So he told her to go look at premade pipes in the HVAC department at The Home Depot, where she quickly absorbed a concept critical to her device.
After learning how to solder and procure specialized materials from universities to build it, Sami has the device almost ready for market.
Zimmerman, who has been with 3M for five years, said the world is in good hands with scientists like Sami. With the resources and expertise the competition pairs students like her with, prototypes have real-world potential.
“I’m so amazed at these young people. What I was doing at 14 wasn’t this — let me tell you. I think it’s amazing she had a life event where the air triggered her (pneumonia) and it made her think about the problem,” Zimmerman said. “If she continues to pursue this path, I think she has great potential.”
Finding her voice
By the time most girls reach Sami’s age, studies show that they tend to be discouraged from pursuing science, technology, engineering and math careers for a variety of reasons. But even with obstacles, Sami said these challenges reinforced her pursuit of the field.
“ (I learned) not to be discouraged by failure, because it’s essential to lead to success,” she said. “I learned that encountering adversity and obstacles was essential to growth. I find something out instead of throwing the idea away.”
College plans are still in formation, but she hopes to pursue biomedical engineering. In a future where she hopes more people look like her in these fields, she said representation is critical in science.
“Science is ultimately about bettering the lives of people,” Sami said. “Representation is essential in having innovations that apply to everyone.”
Through what most laymen might see as a mysterious hunk of metal, the 3M competition has helped Sami see a bright future, despite nearly insurmountable challenges.
“We are thrilled to celebrate the next generation of scientific leaders. Each of this year’s finalists demonstrates the power of science to improve lives and the communities we live in,” said Karina Chavez, senior vice president and chief strategy officer for 3M.
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