From papayas to 3D printing: fresh ideas to purify water

New and innovative ways to purify water that rely on tech and accessible materials are a promising solution. - Image: RephiLe water on Unsplash

Chief Executive Officer, PhosAgro
  • Innovative ways to purify water that rely on tech and accessible materials are key given more than half the world’s population could suffer from a lack of potable water by 2032.
  • The most efficient and effective way to develop those solutions is through public and private partnerships designed to foster and fund innovations.
  • Green Chemistry for Life develops fresh ideas for water purification by providing funding to promising young scientists from around the world.

Right now, 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and 4.2 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services. And the problem is growing – more than half of the Earth’s population may suffer from a lack of potable water by 2032, unless urgent actions are taken. New and innovative ways to purify water that rely on technology and materials that are easy to access present a promising solution.

While large corporations traditionally drive innovation in the name of profit, partnerships with global institutions can help to promote the development of technologies that are accessible to all. Finding ways to prevent the forecasted water shortage will require programmes that connect private companies and global institutions to innovate for global benefit.

For instance, Green Chemistry for Life (GCFL) provides funding to scientists who develop water purification methods. The GCFL grant programme is designed to provide funding for promising young scientists from all over the world engaged in fundamental research that adheres to the 12 principles of green chemistry. Organized under the auspices of UNESCO and IUPAC, this programme is funded by Russian fertilizer producer PhosAgro on an extra-budgetary basis. The first grants were awarded in 2014, although in some cases the projects selected to receive funding had been launched as early as 2005.

Here are some grant examples:

1. Papaya waste to purify liquid waste

Papaya fruit peelings are naturally absorbent, and show promise as an efficient method to remove lead from sewage water. Sharifah Rafidah Wan Alwi received a GCFL grant in 2014 to fund his research into the use of fruit peel (Carica papaya) to derive activated carbon as a natural, inexpensive way to remove lead from liquid waste. The 30-year-old scientist from Malaysia believes his work will both improve water quality and reduce food waste from food production facilities.

2. Optical sensors to heavy-metal ions

Gasser Mohamed Khairy Ali Mostafa, a member of a research group at the Chemistry Department of the Suez Canal University in Egypt, received a grant for the development of inexpensive optical sensors that can detect heavy-metal ions in potable water. The optical sensor consists of a block of membranes containing chromogenic reagents immobilised on a transparent base. The sensors he is developing will contribute to improving public health through the prevention of the use of water contaminated with toxic heavy metals.

3. 3D printing for gas-core reactor design

Research scientist Natalia Quici is designing inexpensive gas-core reactors made using 3D printers that can reduce CO2 emissions by converting them into useful chemical substances. Natalia is a research scientist at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research under the National Atomic Energy Commission in Argentina, and her project also has potential to be a climate change solution, as well as a potable water shortage solution. One of Natalia’s objectives is to integrate these reactors into water treatment facilities that discharge CO2 as a by-product, which would make water purification technology more environmentally friendly through emissions reduction.

4. Recovering contaminated water recovery with bio-nano catalysts

The ReCoVer project is developed by 29-year-old Enrico Ravera, based on three different chemical concepts. The first is that some substances can produce active forms of oxygen under insolation. The second is that there are enzymes that can use these active forms for oxidation of organic compounds. The third is that some proteins can be matrices for substances. The combination of the three concepts helps create specific chemical substances for efficient oxidation of organic compounds. The goal of Enrico’s new technology is to create a functional material for oxidation of aromatic compounds under insolation. The first practical application is the synthesis of some fine chemicals without using dangerous solvents or without severe conditions for chemical reactions. Ultimately, ReCoVer aims to use the material for sewage water purification.

5. Special prize for purifying phosphogypsum and protecting sources of drinking water

Through the Green Chemistry for Life programme, PhosAgro supports research on eliminating potential threats to drinking water. One of the key issues that needs to be addressed is the processing of phosphogypsum – a by-product of the production of phosphoric acid used in making fertilisers. Phosphogypsum dumps can potentially contaminate soils as well as both surface water and groundwater. To minimise the risk of contaminating drinking water, effective technologies need to be introduced that can remove toxic substances from phosphogypsum. PhosAgro has established a special prize for young scientists who develop technological solutions for the purification of phosphogypsum, thereby helping solve a global problem – the conservation of sources of drinking water.

Dr Paltu Kumar of Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India, was awarded the prize for developing a technology that uses local microorganisms for the bioremediation of phosphogypsum from phosphoric acid plants in India. The technology uses microorganisms to optimise the process of extracting and processing harmful substances from phosphogypsum dumps, thus preventing them from entering groundwater and sources of drinking water.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Green Chemistry for Life program

Over the eight years of GCFL’s existence, the international jury comprising 13 scientists and scientific managers from 11 countries has reviewed over 700 applications submitted by young researchers from 120 countries. Grants were provided to 41 scientists from 29 countries. Because of multiple disruptions in the work of universities and R&D institutes caused by COVID-19 and public health safety measures established in many countries, in 2020 the awarding events for winners were not held. A decision was made to extend the submission of applications to 31 January 2021. The awards ceremony for the most interesting and promising projects submitted in 2020 and 2021 will be held in early 2022.

The pandemic not only disrupted this particular programme, but reinforced the need for clean water as an essential component of health, food and nutrition security. Access to clean water – and the sanitation needed to control the spread of infection and viruses like COVID-19 – are at the core of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation. Accelerating the action needed to achieve this goal will require innovative technological approaches, and the most efficient and effective way to develop those solutions is through public and private partnerships designed to foster and fund innovations.

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