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This 16-Year-Old South African Invents a Superabsorbent Material to fight Drought

A severe drought is currently scorching South Africa and the greater southern Africa region. It is causing havoc across the land, with farmer recording massive losses as crops out in the field wither and animals starving and thirst to death.

Well, an 11th grader Kiara Nirghin from the St. Martin’s School in Jo’burg could have the magic formula (literally) to offer the baking ground some relief (again literally). For her Google Science Fair, Nirghin baked up a low-cost and efficient superabsorbent material that promises great application in fighting the drought menace.

Nirghin’s superabsorbent polymer (SAP) is made from orange peels and avocados skin to make up a low-cost and eco-friendly material. SAPs in themselves are not a new technology, they have been in existence for a while.

What’s the commercial application for SAP?

SAPs are commonly used in area regions, to help farmers mitigate the effects of drought when it doesn’t rain over an extended period. These polymers can absorb liquid water up to 300 times their weight. They are usually mixed as some little gummy balls with the soil or as a sticky slush lay in between plant lines and help the soil retain rainfall over a longer period, even during the dry spells.

However, the conventional SAPs are chemical based, expensive to produce, and not biodegradable. Nirghin’s SAPs is made up out of orange peels and avocados skin; something that you can find in kitchen and fruit juice industry waste. They are also biodegradable substance.

As Nirghin explains in her Google science fair entry page, she boiled the orange peels and chopped them into fine pieces and mix with the avocado skins. The mixture was left out in the Sun for 14 days to dry, making a super gelatinous ‘solution’. Part of this solution was baked in a typical home oven, and the product ground down into a fine powder.

Credit: Google Science Fair: Kiara Nirghin

The end products were three distinct versions of SAPs; one was just the orange peel powder, the second was the super gelatinous ‘solution’, and the third is a mixture of the former to making up an ‘orange peel mixture’. As demonstrated in the video below.

How is this SAP better than already existing versions?

Upon testing the three products, the ‘orange peel mixture’ performed the best, and way better than the standard synthetic acrylic SAP versions. Compared head-to-head with the best of best-performing acrylic SAP, Nirghin’s ‘orange peel mixture’ kept the soil moisture content highest over a 20-days test period.

In conclusion, Nirghin’s biodegradable SAP increases the chances of plants to survive drought by up to 84%. Nirghin further drums up support for her SAP by stating:

Commercially used acrylic SAP retail for around $2,000 to $3,000 per metric ton, whereas the ‘orange peel mixture’ could retail at $30 to $60 per metric ton.”

Not forgetting that her SAP production process is very simple and uses kitchen waste and waste products from waste from the fruit juice industries. The raw materials to making this SAP are also readily available to many farmers across Africa, thus replicable across the continent.

Nirghin’s invention has booked her a spot at the top 16 global finalist for the Google Science Fair who will convene in California on September 27 for the final round of the completion.

Milicent Atieno

Proud Kenyan Citizen, loving everything Tech related.

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