The National Academy of Engineering announced Thursday that the 2007 Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability would go to Abul Hussam, a chemistry professor at George Mason University in Fairfax. Hussam’s invention is already in use today, preventing serious health problems in residents of the professor’s native Bangladesh.
This British Geological Survey website provides a good primer to the problem. Some key points:
- Arsenic is very toxic
- Arsenic is naturally occurring in the shallow groundwater aquifers of Bengal and Bangladesh at a toxic level
- The surface water is contaminated with bacteria and was responsible for high infant mortality, so aid agencies in the ’70s encouraged the use of tube wells and other groundwater pumps. While this contributed to a decline in infant mortality from gastrointestinal infections, it also dosed unsuspecting people with disease causing levels of arsenic
- The technology for removal of arsenic is very well known. But most solutions require electricity/periodic maintenance/technical skills and are thus not universal or sustainable.
- Simplicity is the key. You can’t tell the people to not drink the water, it is the only clean water available. You can’t install water treatment plants, there is no running water, you can’t rely on solutions that are centralized.
So with all that in mind, here’s what Prof. Hussam did:
The Gold Award-winning SONO filter is a point-of-use method for removing arsenic from drinking water. A top bucket is filled with locally available coarse river sand and a composite iron matrix (CIM). The sand filters coarse particles and imparts mechanical stability, while the CIM removes inorganic arsenic. The water then flows into a second bucket where it again filters through coarse river sand, then wood charcoal to remove organics, and finally through fine river sand and wet brick chips to remove fine particles and stabilize water flow. The SONO filter is now manufactured and used in Bangladesh. That’s great, and easy!
That’s pretty much freshman chemistry right there, further proof that most innovation does not need new science, only people willing to spend some time on problems that don’t necessarily get looked at.