Kiara Nirghin, a 16-year-old school girl from Johannesburg, South Africa, wowed the judges at the Google Science Fair's Community Impact Award for the Middle East and Africa with her winning submission "No More Thirsty Crops."
Nirghin, who's living through South Africa's worst drought in recorded history, may have just found a cheap and sustainable way to help farmers keep those dying crops alive. Her invention: a new polymer that can store reserves of water hundreds of times its own weight using orange peels and avocado skins.
"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."
Not only is it sustainable, being that it's made from biodegradable waste products, it's also a very low cost way for farmers to store water reserves.
The agricultural union Agri SA has requested over $1 billion in government subsidies to help farmers through the crisis, but Nirghin's new polymer could drastically reduce that price.
"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," said Nirghin.
According to CNN, "As a regional winner, Nirghin has been 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."
Nirghin says it took quite a bit of trial and error to get to where she is. "I started researching what an SAP was, and what they all had in common was a chain molecule polysaccharide," Nirghin recalls. "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."
Essentially, the young inventor made a mixture of orange skin and avocado peels that when left in the sun, forms to create a super absorbent polymer.
Dr. Jinwen Zhang, a professor of materials engineering at Washington State University, who is developing absorbent hydrogels to address drought, said he believes that Nirghin's invention will work. If it does, the orange peel SAP could increase food security by 73% in a drought disaster.
Nirghin's video of her invention, below: