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February 5, 2007
Also appeared in print February 12, 2007, p. 19


Chemist Wins Gold In Million-Dollar Arsenic Challenge

Two other simple systems to remove arsenic from contaminated drinking water take Grainger silver and bronze engineering prizes

Stephen K. Ritter

Analytical chemistry professor Abul Hussam of George Mason University, Fairfax, Va., has won the $1 million Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability for designing a simple, inexpensive system for filtering naturally occurring arsenic from drinking water. Hussam's design, which uses buckets of river sand, pieces of cast iron, and charcoal, is already preventing serious health problems for thousands of people in his native country of Bangladesh.


The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) established the Grainger Prize in February 2005 to accelerate U.S. development of technologies for improving living standards throughout the world (C&EN, Feb. 7, 2005, page 10). The prize is sponsored by the Grainger Foundation, a philanthropic organization named after William W. Grainger, an electrical engineer. The challenge for the first contest was the design of an affordable system to reduce arsenic levels in drinking water to below 50 µg/L, which is the standard in most developing countries.

Naturally occurring arsenic contaminates the drinking water of tens of millions of people worldwide, especially in parts of South America and Asia. Arsenic poisoning from consuming moderate amounts of the toxic element is a slow, debilitating process that can ultimately result in death.

From an initial pool of more than 70 applicants for the prize, a committee last year selected 15 candidates to proceed with demonstration projects at the Environmental Protection Agency's National Risk Management Research Laboratory, Cincinnati. Three winners were selected based on the success of their pilot projects.

Hussam takes the Grainger Gold Award for his SONO filter system that can be used at community or residential wells. The first stage of the two-tiered system is a plastic bucket filled with a layer of locally available coarse river sand and a layer of processed cast iron material known as composite iron matrix. The sand removes sediment, and the iron traps soluble inorganic arsenic compounds.

The second stage of the filter is a bucket containing a layer of coarse sand, a layer of wood charcoal (activated carbon), and a final layer of fine sand and brick chips. The charcoal adsorbs organic arsenic compounds, while the fine sand and brick chips remove finer particles. The design met the competition rules that the system be affordable, reliable, and socially acceptable.

SONO filters are being manufactured in Bangladesh, and thousands of them, each costing less than $40, have been distributed. Some have been in use for five years already without signs of diminished performance. Hussam plans to spend most of his $1 million winnings to distribute SONO filters to needy communities through a nongovernmental organization he has formed with his brother, who is a physician. The remainder of the funds will be used to further his research.

The purpose of the Grainger Prize "is to accelerate development and dissemination of technologies that enhance social and environmental sustainability for the benefit of current and future generations," notes NAE President William A. Wulf. The prize not only stimulates innovation, initiative, and marketing of good ideas, but it also "increases awareness within the U.S. engineering community of the importance of designing and engineering for sustainability," he adds.

In addition to the Gold Award, Grainger Silver and Bronze Awards are being given. The Silver Award of $200,000 is being given to a group of researchers led by chemical engineering professor Arup K. SenGupta of Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pa., who worked in conjunction with the Denver-based nonprofit organization Water For People. Their technology is an alumina-based ion-exchange column that attaches to well pumps. The Bronze Award of $100,000 goes to Procter & Gamble's Children's Safe Drinking Water Program, which has provided millions of individual packets of the company's PUR water-purification chemicals to communities in developing countries. Each packet is designed to treat 10-L batches of water in the home (C&EN, April 17, 2006, page 39).

The prizes will be presented officially on Feb. 20 in Washington, D.C. The goal for the next Grainger Challenge has not been announced.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society