(UR) South Africa — Orange peels and avocado skins could solve one of the worst droughts South Africa has seen in years. A 16-year-old schoolgirl from Johannesburg has developed a polymer from two unlikely substances which could help store water reserves in soil, with minimal cost to farmers.
Aside from possibly saving South Africa billions in requested aid, the super absorbent polymer (SAP) is recyclable and sustainable.
Kiara Nirghin calls her invention “No More Thirsty Crops,” and recently won Google’s community science fair for her contribution to society. Used as a soil amendment, the inventor says she wants to tackle the most daunting national crisis — the drought.
She describes the process of inventing her polymer, explaining that it was trial and error. Nirghin says, “I started researching what an SAP was, and what they all had in common was a chain molecule polysaccharide.”
She recalls, “I found that orange peel has 64% polysaccharide and also the gelling agent pectin, so I saw it as a good (option). I used avocado skin due to the oil.”
Nirghin is getting support from an engineer at Washington State University, Dr. Jinwen Zhang, who says her invention should work. Zhang is developing his own polymer-like substances in the form of absorbent hydrogels to address drought.
Commercially used acrylic SAPs are not only not sustainable, they cost up to $3,000 per metric ton. Nirghin says that her orange peel mixture could be available to farmers for as little as $30 to $60 per metric ton.
The lack of precipitation all over the globe could make Nirghin’s product a great boon. California, North Korea, and Brazil have also faced droughts recently, and the Middle East is perpetually in a water shortage. The area just suffered the worst drought conditions in 900 years, according to a study conducted by NASA.
Though desalinization and reuse of waste water helps to address the potable water issues, crops still often suffer from lack of water, making food scarcity a bigger issue than ever. In fact, drought is named by the World Food Program as one of the most common reasons for food shortages on the planet.
The teenage inventor looks to her hero, an Indian agricultural scientist, M. S. Swaminathan, for inspiration. When asked what she would like to be when she grows up, she says, “I might look into health sciences or engineering … something so I can improve the world.”
Since Swaminathan has promoted GM crops, though, perhaps the younger generation would be smarter to develop more sustainable and ecologically sound solutions than genetically modified seed.
South Africa will surely benefit from Nirghin’s novel invention, but so could the rest of the world.
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