A 16 year-old fights drought with orange peel and avocados

Kiara Nirghin created a super absorbent polymer (SAP) to nourish crops in desperate need of water using orange peels and avocado skins.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – Sixteen year-old, Kiara Nirghin won the 2016 Google Science Fair with her solution for growing crops more effectively in drought effected areas. The year 11 student from St Martin’s High School created a super absorbent polymer (SAP) to nourish crops in desperate need of water using orange peels and avocado skins.

Motivated by witnessing one of the worst droughts in South Africa and recognising the impact of drought as a worldwide problem, Nirghin started considering what she could do to lessen it’s impact on food production. Her attention turned to SAPs, a powder-like material that absorbs large amounts of liquid planted alongside crops to create mini reservoirs of water, used to keep the soil moist for longer and allowing plants to grow with less rainfall or water. Her research highlighted, “commercially found SAPs are not biodegradable, contain many chemicals such as acrylic acid and hydrochloric acid and are costly, therefore to be applied in poorer communities.”

Nirghin’s science project set out to create a more natural, biodegradable alternative. Researching the common characteristics of a super absorbent polymer, she identified polysaccharide, which is found in orange peel. The gelling agent, pectin (often used in jams and jellies) is also prevalent in oranges.

Her trials involved boiling orange peels to extract pectin. Combining the pectin with sun-dried orange peels, baking the mixture and crushing it into a power. Avocado skins are also used in the polymerization process for their natural oils.

On winning regional finals, Nirghin was appointed a mentor from Google to support her work on developing the polymer.

Her proceedures and calculations show the orange peel SAP is very affordable compared to commercial SAPs, more effective at retaining water, and easily produced with time and electricity.

Following her win at the Google Science Fair, Nirghin is ambitious to trial her SAP with maize and wheat farmers in South Africa.

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