Access to safe drinking water remains a concern for many around the world. According to the World Health Organization, 2.1 billion people lacked safely managed water sources in 2015. Without clean water, people are at risk for diseases such as cholera, dysentery and hepatitis A.

But here in Cleveland, a team of Case Western Reserve University students is trying to change that narrative.

The Billion Bottle Project, led by third-year medical student Sanjit Datta, aims to make solar disinfection—a proven method to effectively treat water—easier for people around the world.

Solar disinfection allows families to disinfect their own water by placing water in a bottle and leaving it in the sun for about six hours—or two days in cloudy weather—to treat water. The technique uses UV radiation from the sun to kill bacteria, viruses and parasites.

But limitations exist, with several factors, including the type of bottle and cloud cover, impacting the amount of time needed for disinfection.

Datta and the Billion Bottle Project team aim to streamline the process with a device that can tell users exactly when their water is safe to drink. The low-cost, reusable device can be placed directly into the bottle and change colors from blue to white to indicate when the water is ready.

The team recently won $15,000 through a Phase 1 People, Prosperity, and the Planet grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take their project to the next step. Datta is hopeful they will complete the first working prototype and send it out to community partners this summer.

Members of the Billion Bottle Project

Members of the Billion Bottle Project team at a conference related to the People, Prosperity, and the Planet grant.

Datta was inspired to tackle the issue of water sanitation by his early courses in the School of Medicine’s curriculum on public health and determinants of health.

“It became really clear that a lot of advanced medical technology that I’ve worked to develop in the past isn’t always as impactful as more basic things, like clean water,” he said.

And so the Billion Bottle Project, a student-run nonprofit, was born.

Datta works with a team of medical students and adviser Daniel Lacks, the C. Benson Branch Professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, to develop the device, in addition to other initiatives such as providing the local community with educational programming on water.

For Datta, one of the major draws of the CWRU School of Medicine was the program’s flexibility and the opportunities the school affords for students to explore additional projects outside of the classroom.

Creating innovative solutions to health concerns is familiar territory for Datta, who previously had a career as a biomedical engineer. While conducting research on minimally invasive procedures, Datta worked with several doctors. Those experiences made him realize that he wanted to be on the other side of health care, working directly with patients.

As a medical student, Datta gets to do just that, but the Billion Bottle Project gives him the opportunity to make a difference to people around the world.

Learn more about the project at—and take the time to read Datta’s answers to this week’s five questions.

1. What’s your favorite place to grab a bite to eat in Cleveland?

Dante in Tremont. They have some of the most inventive recipes anywhere in Cleveland, and the small plates are great for sampling and sharing.

2. Where would you like to travel that you’ve never been to?

Italy is definitely the top of the list. I mean, there are a lot of places, but with the food, wine, and beautiful landscapes, Italy takes the cake.

3. What is your biggest goal for 2018?

Definitely to get a prototype that’s fully working into the hands of someone who could use it.

4. If you had to pick another field to work in or study, what would it be?

In a previous life, I was a biomedical engineer, so that’s what I’d be most likely to work in. But I think if I were to study something completely different, it’d probably be computer science because there are so many applications for that in every field; so many opportunities to affect a lot of people’s lives.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

The flexibility and the way that the school attracts people who are able to take advantage of that flexibility. Our curriculum at the med school gives us a lot of time to be able to pursue things outside of medicine—or outside of the classroom at least—that are important to us. That’s allowed us to assemble this big team that’s working on something that we really care about that’s not necessarily directly related to medicine.