A 16-year-old Indian-origin South African teen has won a $50,000 scholarship, the grand prize at the annual Google Science Fair for her work using orange peel to develop a cheaper “super-absorbent material” that helps soil retain water.
Kiara Nirghin, a Grade 11 student at private school St Martin’s, submitted her project titled ‘No More Thirsty Crops’ which was aimed at tackling the severe drought plaguing South Africa.
Her solution to the problem of drought uses orange and avocado fruit peel that is normally discarded.
The Google Science Fair is a programme for budding scientists between the ages of 13 to 18, who are invited to solve the world’s biggest challenges using science and technology. The jurors said:
“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 inventor says she wanted to tackle the most urgent aspect of the national crisis.
“I wanted to minimize the effect that drought has on the community and the main thing it affects is the crops,” says Nirghin, of St. Martin’s School. “That was the springboard for the idea.”
“I have always had a great love for chemistry since I was young. I vividly remember at the age of seven experimenting with vinegar and baking soda solutions in plastic cups,” Ms. Nirghin said in her submission, in which she cited a renowned Indian scientist as her greatest inspiration.
“M.S. Swaminathan has always been an inspiration of mine as he truly believed in the necessary movement of not only India but the whole world towards sustainable agricultural development,” she said.
“I hope to one day become a scientist specialising in agricultural science and also become a molecular gastronomist,” she added. Ms. Nirghin explained how she had found an alternative in the fruit peel to super-absorbent polymers (SAPs), which absorb and carry about 300 times their weight in liquid relative to their own mass.
“These SAPs are not biodegradable, are costly and full of acrylic acid, sodium hydroxide and other chemicals. During more research on the topic, I found that natural occurring polymers exist in most citrus fruits,” Ms. Nirghin said.
After 45 days of experimentation, Ms. Nirghin was successful in creating a low-cost super-absorbent polymer, made out of waste products from the juice manufacturing industry. This polymer is biodegradable, can retain large amounts of water, keep soil moist and improve crop growth without regular water supplements.
The young scientist is convinced that her mixture will assist farmers in drought-hit areas.