12-year-old inventor's DIY phone hack packs a political punch

12-year-old Vaanan Murugathas will bring his do-it-yourself spectrometer to this weekend's Maker Festival to shed light on how anyone hack their phone to measure water quality using just construction paper, a CD, and his mobile app.

Vaanan Murugathas has a do-it-yourself way to measure water contamination

At just 12 years-old, Vaanaan Murugathas invented his own gaming system out of a shoe box, built a full spectrometer from scratch and now he's showing participants at Maker Festival Toronto how to hack one with their cell phone. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

12-year-old Vaanan Murugathas will bring his do-it-yourself spectrometer to this weekend's Maker Festival to shed light on how anyone hack their phone to measure water quality using just construction paper, a CD, and his mobile app.

In an interview on CBC's Metro Morning, Murugathas said he was inspired by hearing host Matt Galloway and Indigenous critic Jesse Wente discussing the frequent and sometimes constant boil water advisories among First Nations reserves.

"Many [First Nations] reserves don't have access to clean water and I feel like the government is not doing enough to actually stop this issue," he said.

So he got to thinking about how anyone could "hack" a spectrometer instead of purchasing the technology or rely on water systems tests Murugathas considers slow. 

At Maker Festival this weekend, he will show attendees how they can make their own spectrometer using cardboard and a broken CD. 

How to make a mobile phone spectrometer 

When you remove the reflective backing off the CD, what's left is the perfect grating that refracts white light into rainbows just like a prism does. 

Don't have a prism? A broken CD will separate a beam of light into it's component colours just as well. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"Just break off a piece and stick it to your phone's camera," he instructs. "You don't need a fancy prism."

The cardboard can be easily, but precisely, folded at a 45-degree angle.

Don't have a prism? Just attach a piece of a broken CD to your cell phone. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"That's very important," he said. Then, through a slit in the cardboard you can shine a light through the water sample and take a photo of the rainbow that's reflected inside.

The image taken by the cell phone will show a rainbow with skewed colours depending on what minerals are in the water.

"Mercury usually shows a fine line of blue. It ends up being extremely thin but it's also a lot more intense," he said, comparing a mercury contaminated water sample to a regular one. "It will also have two green lines that are very close together and extremely bright." 

Simple cardboard folded up in a 45 degree angle. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

You can compare the intensities that show up in the picture of your colour spectrum with examples online.

The idea is that spectral knowledge — understanding what each rainbow means — will empower people living in communities who feel insecure about their water. 

"When you show this data, it can show if there's high mercury levels in the water,"  Murugathas said. "And if they know that, they can publish it and ask questions." 

The result is a graph that shows intensities across the entire colour spectrum. (Submitted)

His mantra: Want it? Make it! 

Murugathas explains his adventures of inventing on his blog 'I make Because...' and prefers the title "Maker" to "Boy Genius" — but you can call him V Man.

And, while he may be wise beyond his years, Murugathas is still a 12-year-old. 

"I was really into video games and dad showed me the classics like Frogger, Galaga and Donkey Kong," he said about the in one of his earlier inventions — a shoe box arcade. 

Murugathas says he really got excited about inventing after his father Thas took him to Maker Fesitval five years ago. Murugathas was such an impressive attendee that he was crowned the festival's Super Geek, a title he's very proud of. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

"I just put all the electronics you'd find in an arcade into the box . It had a joystick, three buttons," he said. "And the final touch was jimmying it up to a display monitor et voilà." 

That was fun, Murugathas said, but as he matures, his inventions do as well. 

"When I make things, it gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I just created something that can help people," he said.

About the Author

Ali Chiasson

Reporter, CBC Toronto

From teleprompter to Associate Producer, Ali Chiasson worked many desks at CBC News Network before stepping in front of the cameras at CBC Toronto. Ali covers a wide range of breaking and feature stories and has a special knack for people profiles. Off the clock, Ali is happiest walking through Bloordale with headphones on, picking through local produce markets, sipping bubble tea and snapping pics of street art.

With files from Metro Morning