Mason Chemist Receives $1 Million Prize for Water Filtration System

Posted: February 2, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Abul Hussam, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, received the 2007 Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability Gold Award of $1 million yesterday from the National Academy of Engineering. The award recognized his innovative solution for removing arsenic from drinking water that is poisoning tens of millions of people in developing countries.

Hussam, a native of Bangladesh, developed the SONO filter, a household water treatment system that he and his brothers have been manufacturing and distributing in Bangladesh for about five years. The filter’s use has helped stop the spread of arsenic poisoning in nearly 100 villages.

“The most satisfying aspect of working on this project is seeing people drinking clean water from SONO filter and feeling better, and for some, the melanosis [poisoning] has been reversed,” said Hussam. “It is truly gratifying to see results of our scientific knowledge at work in the field for the betterment of human conditions.”

Hussam received his BSc honours and MSc in chemistry from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and earned his PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh. He has published and presented more than 90 scientific papers in international journals, proceedings and books. His research involves arsenic measurement and mitigation, electroanalytical chemistry and chemistry in organized media.

Arsenic contamination is prevalent in neighboring Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. Arsenic poisoning is a slow, painful process that can ultimately result in cancer and death. Affected people can have difficulty working or even walking, and continued exposure can lead to liver failure, kidney failure and the amputation of arms or legs.

Hussam developed the SONO filter after years of testing. The filter is simple, inexpensive and made with easily available materials. It involves a top bucket, which is filled with locally available coarse river sand and a composite iron matrix (CIM).

The sand filters coarse particles and imparts mechanical stability, while the CIM removes inorganic arsenic. The water then flows into a second bucket where it again filters through coarse river sand, then wood charcoal to remove organics, and finally through fine river sand and wet brick chips to remove fine particles and stabilize water flow.

Three prizes were awarded by the NAE, with the support of the Grainger Foundation, from a field of 70 entries. The Silver Award went to the nonprofit organization Water For People, and the Bronze Award was given to the Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program at Procter & Gamble Co.

“The primary purpose of the Grainger prize is to accelerate the development and dissemination of technologies that enhance social and environmental sustainability for the benefit of current and future generations,” said NAE President William Wulf.

Winners were recognized for the development, in-field verification and dissemination of effective techniques for reducing arsenic levels in water. The systems had to be affordable, reliable, easy to maintain, socially acceptable and environmentally friendly. All of the winning systems meet or exceed the local government guidelines for arsenic removal and require no electricity.

Hussam will be honored at a gala dinner in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 20.

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