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Spring 2005 Vol. 5 No. 1

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Rewarding Research

©China Photos/Reuters/Corbis

$1 Million Prize Challenges Engineers to Address Sustainability Issues

In the 1970s, United Nations health experts and engineers searching for a solution to unsafe drinking water in South Asia suggested tapping into underground water supplies. "Tube wells" dug 20-75 feet deep provided clean water to millions of people who previously drank from bacteria-tainted ponds, rivers, and lakes. Indeed, cases of waterborne diseases dropped dramatically as thousands of the new wells were drilled. Years later, however, many of the people drinking water from these wells began suffering from a new ailment: arsenic poisoning.

Water well in Shariatpur, Bangladesh, ©Liba Taylor/Corbis Unbeknownst to the officials installing them, tube wells in some parts of the world were drawing on aquifers contaminated by naturally occurring arsenic. The illnesses caused by chronic arsenic exposure -- skin lesions, loss of limb movement, kidney and liver failure, and cancer among them -- are often debilitating and sometimes fatal, although it can take more than a decade before symptoms of the poisoning become visible. In fact, some regions did not recognize they had a new public health problem until the mid-1990s. The epidemic is most extreme in Bangladesh where it is estimated that one-quarter of the population drinks water laced with arsenic at levels up to 50 times higher than what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe.

Now researchers are back at the drawing board, looking for ways to remove arsenic from water, and this time there is a $1 million prize to spur them on. The National Academy of Engineering is offering the Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability to any individual or team who creates a viable arsenic treatment system.

The winning design must be affordable and low tech. Expensive, centralized water treatment facilities are available to purify arsenic-contaminated water in wealthier nations, but what is needed in countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, is an inexpensive system that can be widely distributed to remote villages and households.

Fortunately, some small and cheap methods for removing arsenic from drinking and cooking water are already finding their way to places that need them. Engineering professor Susan Murcott and her graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge developed a $16 filter filled with sand, brick chips, gravel, and iron. When water is poured through the device -- about the size of a small trash can -- arsenic clings to the iron. Two thousand of these filters are now serving 15,000 Nepalese.

And a partnership among researchers from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., and the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh led to a three-bucket sand and iron system that costs $35 and is capable of filtering 20 liters of water per hour. Ten thousand of these filters, which can be used up to five years, are producing cleaner water in schools and homes throughout Bangladesh.

The effectiveness of the bucket system was confirmed by a Columbia University study of a two-bucket design being used by six households in Bangladesh. In four of the homes, arsenic levels in filtered water fell below the World Health Organization's standard of 10 micrograms per liter. Misuse of the filters probably led to slightly higher levels in the other two homes, researchers said, clearly indicating the need for easy-to-use filters -- another criteria of the Grainger prize. They also cautioned that unsafe levels of the element manganese were found in some of the filtered water samples.

Research awards have propelled many ideas into realities and NAE President Wm. A. Wulf hopes the Grainger prize will do the same. "It focuses the talents of the engineering community on solving a tremendous problem and improving the quality of life for all people," he said.   -- Bill Kearney

The Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability is sponsored by The Grainger Foundation. Prize applications must be submitted to NAE by June 2006. After monitored pilot tests, the prize will be awarded in early 2007. For more information, visit <>.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences