Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Science Fair Rock Star: Kiara Nirghin

When thinking of ideas for her Google Science Fair project Kiara Nirghin, from Johannesburg, South Africa, looked around and wondered where she could best apply her natural scientific curiosity for the greatest good. She credits her father for her this humanitarian pursuit, saying he continually reminds her of what is truly important. "You can get as many A's in school and university but what matters most is what you do for the [person who] cannot do for themselves."

South Africa, as well as many others around the globe, is in the midst of a terrible drought, leading to food insecurity and further environmental degradation as poor farmers resort to dangerous practices to survive. Kiara, who loves studying physics and chemistry, had learned a bit about superabsorbent polymers (SAPs) in her chemistry class and wondered if they might hold the key to improving water retention in soil.
"I sought to create a product that can improve soil quality, preserve water and resist drought therefore producing a better environment for crops grow. It is must be harmless and non-polluting with super water absorbing ability and water preserving ability."
Water-absorbing polymers have been around for a while -- they're what make modern sanitary pads and diapers so slim and absorbent. Even though they were first researched as an option for water conservation by the USDA back in the early 1960s, they have yet to find wide use in agricultural applications because of concerns over their environmental impact and the cost versus efficacy. The existing crop of SAPs are expensive and require high levels of dangerous chemicals to work, which would then break down over time into the soil, making them unsuitable for use with food crops, while the cost would be prohibitive for small farmers.

Kiara wondered if there was a way to unlock the naturally occurring polymers in citrus peels, creating "a low-cost, biodegradable and organically cross-linked SAP out of orange peels, that can retain large amounts of water, keep soil moist and improve crop growth without regular water supplements?"
"I vividly remember at the age of 7 experimenting with vinegar and baking soda solutions in plastic cups. My natural curiosity and questioning nature has sparked my everlasting love of science."
She tested her idea by creating a couple of different types of orange peel-based SAPs, alongside SAPs currently in use, and tracked the water-retention over several months. It turns out she was on to something! As you can read in her Google Science Fair project "Combating Drought with a Low-Cost, Biodegradable Superabsorbent Polymer Made Out of Orange Peels," her research shows that by combining orange peels and avocado skins she was able to often meet, and sometimes beat, the water-retention qualities of the more expensive and toxic SAPs currently on the market.

Her brilliant scientific curiosity led to a exciting discovery. And for her effort she -- in an even more remarkable feat -- earned both the Regional Finalist AND Community Impact Awards from the Google Science Fair judges.

She now moves on to the next stage of the 2016 Google Science Fair, where she will compete against the other Regional Finalists to be named as one of the Global Finalists in August.

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