JOHANNESBURG — An extreme drought began in South Africa in 2015, triggered by a combination of increased temperatures and the El Nino Southern Oscillation. According to a report from the South African Weather Service, there was only 403 mm of rainfall in 2015, the smallest amount in the 112 years that it has been recorded, and well below the average of 608 mm per year. This has put millions of lives in danger, as the drought in South Africa has made farming nearly impossible in a majority of the country’s provinces.
However, an answer to this crisis may have been found. Kiara Nirghin, a 16-year-old student at St Martin’s High School in Johannesburg, won the Google Science Fair’s Community Impact Award for the Middle East and Africa for her invention of a new super absorbent polymer (SAP).
Nirghin’s Google Science Fair submission explains that SAPs “carry about 300 times its weight in liquid relative to their own mass,” which would create a “reservoir of collected water in soil.” Unfortunately, most SAPs that farmers use cannot be broken down naturally, are extremely expensive and contain chemicals that are harmful to the environment.
In order to avoid the negative elements associated with mainstream SAPs, Nirghin looked toward nature. Through her research, the young student found that many citrus fruits contain natural polymers, and that the peels of oranges have around 64 percent polysaccharide, a molecule found in all SAPs. The most crucial step in creating a SAP is forming what is called a cross-link, which is usually achieved by using harsh chemicals, but Nirghin found that when orange peels are mixed with the oil in avocado leaves and left in the heat and light of the sun, a reaction occurs that creates a SAP.
According to Nirghin’s report, after more then 45 days of research and experimentation, she created a mixture that outperformed all other popularly used SAPs. Her tests prove that her orange peel SAP has the ability to absorb 71.6 percent of water, which will increase soil moisture and the growth rate of crops. Nirghin’s SAP is inexpensive, environmentally conscious and highly efficient.
The Johannesburg native recently became a global finalist in the Google Science Fair, where her invention will compete against those of 15 other students. Nirghin has a bright future ahead of her, but at the moment she only hopes to combat the drought in South Africa through the implementation of her SAP.
– Liam Travers