In 2017, South Africa went through its worst drought in 35 years, with more than 2.7 million households facing water shortages across the country. There were also increased job cuts in the agricultural sector as farmers sell off their land due to a lack of access to funds. South Africa’s worst drought in recorded history has left eight of the country’s nine provinces in a state of disaster, with thousands of communities and millions of households facing water shortages.
As the drought progressed, a glimmer of hope came through 17-year-old, Kiara Nirghin when she developed a solution to the drought that’s effective, biodegradable and cost-effective.
16 at the time, St. Martin’s High School Johannesburg schoolgirl, Kiara Nirghin of Indian and South African origin, won the Google Science Fair’s Community Impact Award for the Middle East and Africa with her submission, “No More Thirsty Crops” in 2016.
Research and a love for the sciences apparently come natural to Kiara.
“I have always had a great love for chemistry since I was young. I vividly remember at the age of 7 experimenting with vinegar and baking soda solutions in plastic cups. My natural curiosity and questioning nature has sparked my everlasting love of science.”
Nirghin is quoted as saying in her research report,
“I sought to create a product that can improve soil quality, preserve water, and resist drought, therefore producing a better environment for crops to grow. If the idea was commercialized and applied to real farms and real crops I definitely think the impact that drought has on crops would be reduced. I wanted to minimize the effect that drought has on the community and the main thing it affects is the crops. That was the springboard for the idea.”
Kiara’s knack for science led her to her kitchen where she discovered that peels of oranges and avocados can transform into SAPs under UV radiation and heat. Her research drove her to win the Grand Prize at Google Science Fair 2016. The brilliance of the 45-day long project is that it does not involve expensive resources. The SAP can be created using only electricity and fruit peels and can hold up to 300 times of their weight in liquid.
By combining orange peels and avocado skins, Kiara created a super absorbent polymer (SAP) that can store reserves of water about 300 times its weight in liquid relative to its own mass, according to the teen’s project page. This allows it to form reservoirs that farmers can use to maintain their crops at a low cost. The mixture is also sustainable, as it is made of recycled and biodegradable waste products. The polymer has the added benefit of sustainability as it uses recycled and biodegradable waste products.
Typical SAPs are expensive, not biodegradable and are composed of acrylic acid, sodium hydroxide and other chemicals. In addition to being more environmentally friendly, Kiara’s orange peel SAP can absorb 76.1 percent of water, which is a greater amount than the acrylic, starch and pectin SAPs, which all held 74 percent or less, according to her study. The teen’s mixture is also much more cost effective than chemical SAPs.
“The orange peel mixture is made out of waste products found in the juice manufacturing industry,” wrote Kiara. “The only resources involved in the creation of the orange peel mixture were electricity and time, no special equipment nor materials were required. Commercially used acrylic SAP retail [is] around $2,000 to $3,000 per metric ton, whereas the orange peel mixture could retail at $30 to $60 per metric ton.”
“Kiara found an ideal material that won’t hurt the budget in simple orange peel, and through her research, she created a way to turn it into soil-ready water storage with help from the avocado,” said Andrea Cohan, program leader of the Google Science Fair.
The process was a “trial and error” process, with a lot of experimentation before alighting on the perfect formula.
“I started researching what an SAP was, and what they all had in common was a chain molecule polysaccharide. 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.”
She combined the skin and peel and left the mixture in the sun, where they reacted together to form the powerfully absorbent polymer. For the next step in developing the polymer, Kiara said she would like to experiment further with water filtration and oil removal from water, as well as creating large amounts of the orange peel SAP to apply to crops such as maize and wheat in poorer South African communities.
As a regional winner, Kiara was assigned a mentor from Google to work with her on developing the polymer, and hopes it could be tested in the field. She will soon discover if she is one of the tech giant’s sixteen global finalists.
Kiara Nirghin also made room for herself in the TIME’s 30 Most Influential Teens list for the year 2016. Joining the list along with many popular personalities like, Kylie Jenner, Maisie Williams and Maddie Ziegler, she made it to the top 30 through her scientific aptitude.
Kiara has always been concerned about her society and how she can improve conditions. In 2015, she had participated in a Clothes to Good community challenge where she collected 277 bags (1,106.99 kgs) of clothes. She was prized for collecting the most number of clothes which were then donated to charity.
Kiara says she draws inspiration from renowned Indian scientist M S Swaminathan and aspires to work towards sustainable agricultural development.
“I hope to one day become a scientist specialising in agricultural science and also become a molecular gastronomist,” she added. She has now marked her new target, to utilise her research into water filtration and removal of oil from water, which could be a pioneering step towards cleaning up oil spills. “I might look into health sciences or engineering,” she says of her future plans. “Something so I can improve the world.”