Finding a solution for global water worries

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An article by Shannon Snyder for the Water Project brings to light a considerable struggle faced by the majority of people residing in India. Holding about three times the population of the United States in approximately one third of its space, India is the second most populous country in the world.

While India has taken major steps to reduce the amount of poverty experienced by its people, a disproportionate percentage of the populace still lives in a sub-optimal financial situation—the numbers of rural and urban poor combined make up more than 52% of India’s denizens.

The destitution of India’s majority is reflected in the quality of its municipal drinking systems and various water sources: only 33% of the country has access to traditional sanitation methods for water, and over 21% of the nation’s diseases are water-related.

To add insult to injury, the unsanitary nature of India’s water sources are not the country’s sole watery worry: not only are India’s current drinking sources highly contaminated, but they are extremely unreliable and far from indefinite— the country faces immediate concerns about the long-term availability of its water sources due to major nationwide agricultural endeavors and excess water consumption for food production. Water rationing is neither unexpected nor out of place in many cities in India; in rural areas and slums, thousands of people live without access to clean running water.

It’s situations like that faced by the people of India—and others all over the world—that have inspired senior Chaitanya Karamchedu’s innovation of a cost-effective desalination procedure.

Water, arguably the compound most responsible for the evolution of earthly life as we know it, is certainly one of earth’s most abundant substances—about 71% of our planet is covered in water (nationalgeographic.com). However, according to NOAA, 97% of this water is held by the earth’s oceans, rendering it unfit for both agrarian usage and human consumption. The remaining 3% is divvied up into ground water, glacial icecaps, and surface water—less than 1% of which is accessible and fit for human usage.

Existing desalination techniques—among them the current gold standard of desalination, a process known as reverse osmosis—are aimed at drawing freshwater from the ocean by breaking the bonds between salt and seawater, an endeavor that uses enormous amounts of energy and requires millions of dollars. As a result, many peoples who cannot afford such desalination processes (like those in India) are forced to function under the constant threat of drought—which is why Karamchedu’s proposal has so much potential.

Unlike current desalination procedures, Karamchedu’s proposal revolves around removing free water (water not bonded to salt) from the sea—a much more cost-effective enterprise than breaking ionic bonds.

“My process is essentially taking advantage of the fact that seawater is not completely saturated with salt,” Karamchedu said. “Not every [seawater] molecule is bonded to salt ions, so my process essentially increases the efficiency of current desalination systems by removing the water molecules that weren’t salinated in the first place.”

Karamchedu proposes using a biodegradable superabsorbent polymer— the environmentally friendly cousin of the absorbent plastics in diapers—to soak up the free water in seawater, leaving behind a salty concentrate.

“The superabsorbent polymer that I’m using was recently developed in the last 20 years,” Karamchedu said. “It’s composed of cornstarch and can absorb up to 2000 times its weight in water.”

Though Karamchedu willingly explains the general scientific premise of his innovation and offers vague details of its components, he is hesitant to divulge the more particular details of the process.

His reluctance is explained by a recent near-miss experience with plagiarism at a desalination conference.

“I was recently at a lecture by one of the leading experts in reverse osmosis desalination, and during the Q and A session afterwards, a student stood up and said that he was a freshman at OSU who had been working on a desalination project during his senior year in high school, “ Karamchedu said. “He said that he had used superabsorbent polymers to take advantage of the fact that seawater isn’t fully saturated by salt—that’s when warning bells started going off in my head. He went on to basically quote my recent TV interview.”

As luck would have it, the presenting professor at the conference knew about Karamchedu’s work and promptly called the misrepresenter out, recognizing the student’s deception. Shortly after his public humiliation, Karamchedu’s impersonator disappeared from the conference altogether—Karamchedu has not heard of or from him since.

Despite this alarming incident, Karamchedu does not hesitate to patiently explain his project and bounce ideas off anyone who will listen. He encourages his peers to take a deeper look at world problems and try to do something about them, stressing the fact that his innovation is not the result of any abnormal genius on his part, but instead a combination of persistence, hard work, and luck.

His sentiment is echoed by Dr. Lara Shamieh, Karamchedu’s former biology teacher. The majority of Karamchedu’s research and experimentation took place in a Jesuit lab neighboring the one she presides over.

“Chai obviously is very very bright,” Shamieh said. “But [his] story is not [one] of [a] brilliant kid who sat down one day and had an idea. [His] is [a] story of a smart kid who saw a problem, saw a need, and decided to do something about it, and tackled it…his willingness to try and try again until he gets it right…that’s where the beauty in this is.”