A partnership between young people filled with ideas and those with the knowledge and skills to make them a reality is the best chance we have to transform the world.
This was the message delivered by 18-year-old inventor Macinley Butson during her keynote address at the Australian Water Association’s (AWA) Ozwater’19 conference.
Butson, who won the 2019 Australian Stockholm Junior Water Prize and was named the 2018 NSW Young Australian of the Year, said young people often have creative ideas but lack the industry know-how to make them happen.
“We need to begin bridging that gap,” she said.
“The best way to do that is by hearing from experts, the people who actually know what they’re doing, and learning from them.”
Butson has been interested and involved in science for as long as she can remember, but it was learning some shocking statistics that drew her attention to water.
“I knew about water issues, but I didn’t know the extent of the problem,” she said.
“I came across two statistics that struck me to the core. These were that 80% of diseases in developing communities are related to poor water quality, and that the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates one in five people who undergo a minor or major surgery in a developing community will pass away as a result of infection due to a lack of sterile water.”
Determined to help tackle the problem, Butson developed the SASS (sanitation and sterilisation) system. This is a portable, solar-powered unit that provides clean, safe potable water and sterile water for medical use.
Water is passed through a chemical filter before going through a solar disinfection (SODIS) process, which uses the UV in sunlight to kill bacteria. The water can then be sterilised in a pressure cooker, which is powered by the attached solar panel.
“The system can be flat packed, it can be chucked in the back of a car and taken wherever necessary,” Butson said.
“People have said it could be used for disaster relief or in areas where water has been compromised. For me, this project became less about the fact that I invented something and more about the idea that it is possible to develop solutions to these problems.”
Butson’s most recent project, the SODIS sticker, which was her winning entry in the 2019 Australian Stockholm Junior Water Prize, accurately measures the amount of UV exposure required to sanitise drinking water using a transparent UV-sensitive film coupled with a partial UV blocking filter.
“For solar disinfection, the WHO recommends you put the water in the sun for six hours,” she said.
“This is very vague, especially if you’re living in the Himalayas or in Africa – those two conditions are very different. Solar sterilisation is a process that isn’t dependent on the amount of time, but is dependent on the exposure, which between those two places vary significantly.
“I wanted to look at a cost-effective way to monitor this. We have UV meters, but if you’re living in a developing community there are more pressing things to spend your money on.”
Despite being a prolific inventor, Butson said she knows she still has a lot to learn, but that she believes her inexperience is one of the secrets to her early successes.
“One of the most beneficial aspects of my whole scientific journey is that I don’t know how things work; I have no preconceived ideas about what’s going to happen,” she said.
“I have always been curious about the world around me and I wanted to find out the secrets that were held in every single nook and cranny.
“My interest in how the world runs has grown over time. My first ever science project stemmed from an obsession I had with sunglasses, so I decided to make a pair of my own.
“From there, I’ve moved on to problems that are facing the world as we know it.”
The Australian Stockholm Junior Water Prize is open to students between the ages of 15 and 20 who have conducted water-related projects of environmental, scientific, social or technological importance. The Australian winner will travel to Stockholm to compete for the international award.