Kiara Nirghin, a 16-year-old Indian-origin South African teen of Grade 11 student at private school St Martin’s, submitted her project titled ‘No More Thirsty Crops’ which was aimed at alleviating the severe drought plaguing South Africa.
She has won a USD 50,000 scholarship at the annual Google Science Fair in the US for using orange peel to develop a cheaper “super-absorbent material” that helps soil retain water.
Her solution to the problem of drought uses the peels from orange and avocado fruits, which were normally discarded. The Google Science Fair is a programme for any budding scientists between the ages of 13 to 18, who are invited to solve world’s biggest challenges using science and technology.
Nirghin explained how she had found an alternative in the fruit peels to super-absorbent polymers (SAPs), which absorb and carry about 300 times its weight in liquid relative to their own mass.
These SAPs are not biodegradable, costly and full of acrylic acid, sodium hydroxide and other chemicals. During more research in the topic, I found that natural occurring polymers exist in most citrus fruits.
After 45 days of experimentation, Nirghin was successful in creating a low-cost super-absorbent polymer, made out of waste products found in the juice manufacturing industry, that is biodegradable, can retain large amounts of water, keep soil moist and improve crop growth without regular water supplements.
Nirghin’s discovery has huge financial implications for agriculture, as her creation could retail at USD 30 to USD 60 per metric tonne, as compared to the USD 2,000 plus costs of SAPs.
The young scientist is convinced that her mixture will help assist farmers in agricultural drought disaster areas, where food security could increase by 73 per cent.