Friday, May 2, 2008

the power of a prize

The story of a scientist who won a million dollar prize for cheap removal of arsenic from groundwater to help save the people of Bangladesh. The kicker he donated almost all of the money to distribute his invention for free.

from Islamica Magazine via Wired Science

Their introduction:
It has been called the greatest mass poisoning in human history, bigger than the 1984 chemical spill in Bhopal, India, and bigger than Chernobyl. In an effort to prevent the crippling cholera and typhoid outbreaks of the 1940s and 50s, the Bangladeshi government, financed by UNICEF and the World Bank, began digging tube wells - deep incisions into the Earth's surface - to bypass contaminated surface water and pump up cleaner water from below. Since the 1970s million of such wells have been dug and, although initially unpopular, through massive awareness campaigns were made the primary source of Bangladeshi drinking water. What wasn't known at the time, or as some allege, was not adequately tested, was that the groundwater in the wells contained high levels of arsenic, in some cases as much as four hundred times the amount deemed safe. The World Health Organization (WHO) now estimates that between 35 and 77 million Bangladeshis are being slowly poisoned, and the Dhaka Department of Dermatology and Venereology estimates that as many as 200,000 people may die each year as a result.

Since the scale of the disaster has become known, numerous proposals have been put forward to ameliorate the catastrophe. One is to deepen the existing wells and thereby bypass the tainted water. With millions of wells to deepen, however, the cost could be astronomical with no guarantee of success. Another is to build elaborate rainwater collection systems, but UNICEF has cautioned that there is not enough rainfall in the country to do this. A third and final solution is to develop effective filters for the existing well water. But, as of 2001, the World Bank stated that there is "no proven affordable arsenic removal technology available yet."

Enter the Grainger Foundation of Lake Forest, Illinois. In 2005, the non-profit foundation announced the Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability, a million-dollar award for the most effective, inexpensive, reliable, and environmentally friendly solution to the arsenic problem facing Bangladesh and similar countries with tube-well-related problems. The United States' National Academy of Engineering was designated its arbitrator and in a little less than a year it received more than 70 entries. In February 2007, after exhaustive tests conducted by United States Environmental Protection Agency, the NAE finally announced the winner: Dr. Abul Hussam, a chemistry professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

His filter, a marvel of effectiveness and simplicity, costs only $35 to produce and can remove arsenic, iron, manganese, and many other toxic substances. Each unit can filter nearly 500 liters per day, enough water for sixty people. Perhaps most important of all, it is simple to operate and can work without interruption for at least five years.

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