A 16-year-old Indian-origin South African student, Kiara Nirghin has won a $50,000 scholarship at the annual Google Science Fair in the US for using the discarded food material such as orange peel and avocado fruits to develop a cheaper “super-absorbent material” that aids soil to retain water.

The Grade 11 student of a South African School submitted a project titled ‘No More Thirsty Crops’, aimed at alleviating the severe drought that South Africa is suffering from. Kiara used orange peel to develop a cheap super- absorbent material to help 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 where budding scientists (between the ages of 13 to 18) are invited to solve the world’s biggest challenges using science and technology.

Speaking on her novel research, the Indian-origin South African teen researcher said that she had found an alternative in the fruit peels to super-absorbent polymers (SAPs) which can absorb and carry over 300 times its weight in liquid relative to their own mass.

After 45 days of experimentation, the young researcher was successful in creating a low-cost super-absorbent polymer, made out of waste products found in the juice manufacturing industry, which is biodegradable, can retain large amounts of water, keep soil moist and improve crop growth without regular water supplements. “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”, said Kiara.

The young scientist is convinced that her invention will assist farmers in agricultural drought disaster areas, where food security could increase by around 75%.

Kiara also stated in her submission, in which she cited a renowned Indian scientist as her greatest inspiration. “MS 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”. “I hope to one day become a scientist specialising in agricultural science and also become a molecular gastronomist,” she added.


by Ashwani Srivastava

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