Iowa City student wins award for pollution-reduction invention in young scientist contest

Iowa City student Shanza Sami, 14, presents her prototype October 17 at the 3M Young Scientist Challenge in St. Paul, Minnesota. (3M Young Scientist Challenge)

Shanza Sami, 14, a student from Iowa City, works on a device with fellow students at the 3M Young Scientist Challenge in St. Paul, Minnesota in October. (3M Young Scientist Challenge)

Shanza Sami, 14, a student from Iowa City, takes third place in the 3M Young Scientist Challenge awards ceremony for her prototype advanced vehicle air filtration device. Their prototype made the finals out of hundreds of applications from students across the country. (Saif Sami)

Iowa City student Shanza Sami (center right), 14, rings the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange earlier this month with fellow winners of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge. In addition to a cash prize, the winners received a trip to New York. (Saif Sami)

Shanza Sami, 14, a student from Iowa City, works with fellow students at the 3M Young Scientist Challenge in St. Paul, Minnesota last month. (3M Young Scientist Challenge)

Shanza Sami, 14, a student from Iowa City, poses with Dr. Patrick Zimmerman, her mentor at the 3M Young Scientist Challenge, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Zimmerman helped Sami develop a prototype air filter that reduces a vehicle’s particulate matter emissions by over 99 percent. (Saif Sami)

IOWA CITY — While most people have a lifetime of ignorance of what exactly comes out of their car’s exhaust, ignorance couldn’t withstand the curiosity of one Iowa City student.

Shanza Sami, 14, a student at Iowa City West High School, was raised in a family that encouraged her to be interested in science. But an event five years ago sparked an interest that captivated her and turned her into an inventor with a promising prototype.

During a trip to India with her parents at the age of 9, Sami suddenly had trouble breathing. She was hospitalized with pneumonia caused by air pollution in India, which was significantly worse than what she was used to in Iowa.

Although she has not had any major health problems since then, the experience continues to motivate her.

“It shook me to see that other people are struggling with air pollution, especially the underprivileged,” she said.

So, with the help of a teacher in her school’s advanced learning program, she began developing a project of pure passion: an air filtration device that could reduce emissions from cars — a major culprit for both air pollution, which can cause illness, and the carbon emissions that fuel climate change . The current equipment on most vehicles, the catalytic converter, hasn’t had a major update since its introduction in the 1970s – and was invented decades earlier.

“It’s a very outdated technology. It hasn’t done a good job of making gases safer for the environment,” Sami said. “I was shocked to find out that it had never been worked on before.”

Now the 14-year-old hopes to reduce pollution and buy more time to solve climate change problems with an inexpensive add-on she thinks will be added by automakers or car service chains.

The device, Pura Aerem, won third place in the finals of the 3M Young Scientist Challenge in St. Paul, Minnesota in October – a competition in which hundreds of students compete for a chance to turn their idea into a reality within four months implement mentoring with a 3M scientist.

How it works

The Pura Aerem, an add-on for a car’s exhaust system, removed over 99 percent of fine dust particles in student tests compared to exhaust from a car without the device. Particulate matter is one of the most prevalent components of exhaust pollution, known to cause a variety of diseases and conditions such as stroke.

“The results were extremely promising,” said Sami.

In five stages, the device removes particulate matter from the air, encapsulates carbon dioxide, captures water vapor to power the device, and uses ultraviolet light to remove volatile organic compounds and pollutants in the air through a process known as photoelectrochemical oxidation is known – also called PECO filtration.

But as she works to bring the device to market through partnerships with automakers and auto service chains, she still has a few issues to resolve. The most important of these are what to do with the absorption of carbon dioxide and particulate matter that accumulates 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 expect a transition to electric cars to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change, the device could play an important part as a stopgap. Many years after some drivers switched 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 remains before the worst effects of climate change become irreversible — Sami says her device is buying more time.

“Now is the time to act on 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 hopes to reduce costs even further, make mass production efficient, and easy to install for riders around the world.

How she built it

In weekly meetings, Dr. Patrick Zimmerman, applications scientist in 3M’s Automotive and Aerospace Solutions division, told the no-technical student to overcome the obstacles it took to build a prototype in four months.

“When she was developing (the) carbon dioxide absorption part of the device, I encouraged her to think about how exhaust gases would flow through the chamber,” Zimmerman said. “She asked how I could build this to mimic an exhaust system.”

So he told her to look at prefabricated pipes at The Home Depot’s HVAC department, where she quickly picked up a concept that was critical to her unit.

After learning how to solder and sourcing special materials from universities for construction, Sami has the device almost ready for the 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 that the competition brings together students like her, prototypes have real potential.

“I am so amazed by these young people. What I was doing when I was 14 wasn’t — let me tell you. I find it amazing that she had a life event where the air triggered her (pneumonia) and it got her thinking about the issue,” Zimmerman said. “If she continues down this path, I believe she has great potential.”

find your voice

By the time most girls reach Sami age, studies show that they tend to be discouraged from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for a variety of reasons. But even with obstacles, Sami said, those challenges increased her drive for the field.

“[I’ve learned]not to let failure discourage me because that’s essential to leading to success,” she said. “I have learned that facing adversity and obstacles is essential to growth. I figure something out instead of throwing the idea away.”

College plans are still in the works, but she hopes to study biomedical engineering. In a future where she hopes more people in these fields will look like her, she said representation is key in science.

“Science is ultimately about improving people’s lives,” said Sami. “Representation is essential to having innovations that apply to everyone.”

Through what most laypeople would see as a mysterious piece of metal, the 3M competition has helped Sami see a bright future despite nearly insurmountable challenges.

“We are very excited 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, 3M senior vice president and chief strategy officer.

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