South African Teen Wins Google Science Fair 2016

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Technology


A teenager from Johannesburg, Kiara Nirghin, has won this year’s Google Science Fair. Her research, titled “No More Thirsty Crops”, revolved around the use of fruit to maximise water absorption for crops, which has significant benefits during this time of drought in South Africa. The world’s brightest, young budding scientists congregated at Googleplex in Mountain View, California, Google’s Headquarters, to showcase their research, innovations and ideas. The Science Fair is open to all kids between the ages of 13 and 18.

Kiara, a 16-year old Grade 11 pupil at St Martin’s School, has developed a natural super-absorbent polymer that allows soil to retain massive amounts of water. What’s more significant here is that it uses natural materials, in the most unlikeliest, yet easily available sources, orange and avocado peels. The research has a huge impact in the field of Superabsorbent Polymers (SAPs) in agriculture, and has been proven to reduce water depletion, while at the same time increasing plant survival and growth rates.

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An added benefit of the use of natural materials is its decomposition characteristics. Commercial SAPs are not biodegradable, contain chemicals such as acrylic acid and hydrochloric acid, and are costly, making it difficult to be applied in poorer communities. Kiara’s research found that “orange peels contain over 63% of polysaccharide while avocado peels contain 54% of natural oils needed in emulsion polymerization, which react monomer molecules into polymer chains. The orange peel would need to be thermally cross-linked to make the product biodegradable, but in the absence of strong reactive chemicals, the solution would need to be need to undergo emulsion polymerization with avocado skin oil and photopolymerization in UV light.”

During her experiments, the mixture showed that it could absorb 76.1% of water, supporting the hypothesis that it could increase soil moisture. On average, a ton of chemical absorbents sell for R28,000, while the orange and avocado peel mixture could be produced for less than R900 per ton.

Kiara’s win was definitely well deserved, and will have a significant impact on the local and global agricultural industry. Included in the prize was a cool $50,000 (more than R650,000) in scholarship funding. A huge congratulations to Kiara on this great achievement.

You can view more details of the project via the Google Fair website.

Other winners included:

  • Scientific American Innovator Award: Ashton Cofer, Luke Clay, Julia Bray from the US for “Fighting foam waste with recycled filters”.
  • National Geographic Explorer Award: Mphatso Simbao from Lusaka, Zambia for “Keeping farms alive on a budget”.
  • Lego Education Builder Award: Anushka Naiknaware from the US for “Smart wound care for the future”.
  • Virgin Galactic Pioneer Award: Charlie Fenske from the US for “Making rockets more efficient”.

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