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Royal Society Funding to Address Water for India

19 July 2010

A University of Ulster scientist has been awarded a significant grant from the Royal Society to fund an international research project, which aims to provide a cost effective way of providing access to safe drinking water in isolated rural areas in India.

Dr Tony Byrne in the School of Engineering’s Nanotechnology and Integrated BioEngineering Centre is working in collaboration with Dr Rita Dhodapkar, National Environmental Engineering Centre, Nagpur in India to investigate how solar energy can be used to treat drinking water supplies.

“India receives an average of between 4 to 7 KWh/Day/square meter of solar energy.  So we are looking at ways to harness solar energy to provide safe drinking water to help break the cycle of illness, early death and poverty caused by poor sanitation,” says Dr Byrne.

Water related diseases cause as many as four million deaths in a year yet around one billion people worldwide have no access to any kind of treated drinking water. Diarrhoeal disease kills an estimated 1.8 million people each year, and accounts for 17% of deaths of children under 5 years of age in developing countries. Ninety four percent of this disease burden is attributable to the environment, including risks associated with unsafe water, lack of sanitation and poor hygiene.

In India, most people live in rural villages and do not have a regular and safe water supply. The drinking water source is ground water, which is frequently contaminated due to unhygienic practices and storage conditions, and there are frequent outbreaks of water borne diseases like typhoid and cholera.

One of the eight Millennium Development Goals is to halve the proportion of the people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015 but both the WHO and UNICEF acknowledge that it is unlikely to meet this target. As a result, we need to look at alternative and cost effective ways to deliver the health benefits of safe drinking water.

Dr Byrne and Dr Dunlop from NIBEC are working on solar disinfection of water using photocatalytic nanoparticles.  Their current work builds on a previous project by the NIBEC research team relating to the development of solar disinfection for developing countries.

According to Dr Byrne, some of the well-established methods of providing a sustainable and safe water supply present difficulties because of their demands on regional economies and other structures. However the use of solar energy is a simple, cost effective and user friendly approach to reduce the risk of water borne disease.

“The use of disinfectants such as chlorine offer a reliable water supply after treatment but the supply of chlorine itself may not be reliable, and must be used in a suitable location to avoid repeat pollution of the water supply.  Similarly, filtration will only work when the problems of building a suitable unit, installing it and maintaining it have been resolved.  Boiling drinking water consumes large quantities of fuel and raises challenges of treating and storing a sufficient supply.

“However if you fill a plastic or glass bottle with water and expose it to direct sunlight for about six hours, the water will be safer to drink.  In particular, the pathogens responsible for cholera, dysentery, typhoid, gastroenteritis and polio are destroyed.  If you introduce photocatalysis, the efficiency of the process becomes even greater.  The photocatalyist material is titanium dioxide, a non-toxic metal oxide used in a variety of common products including paint, toothpaste and cosmetics.  When irradiated by sunlight it becomes a powerful catalyst, creating an environment in which a wide range of pathogenic micro-organisms and organic pollutants are killed or degraded.”

The project is also researching ways of delivering the technology to communities in a way that is easy to sustain.

“Put simply, if people can’t afford to use a solar disinfection method, or if it relies on regular deliveries of goods, then it won’t work.  Access to clean water for some of the time will not make lives better so we are looking at a number of approaches that will work in local, often isolated communities.  The NIBEC team have worked with Dr Pilar Fernandez of the Plataforma Solar de Almeria in Spain to develop an automated solar disinfection system which can be deployed for small community or household use.”

Dr Byrne acknowledges that the process of providing a sustainable source of safe drinking water is only part of the solution.

“Local people have to be educated on the risks of using a contaminated water supply and to be made aware of the benefits of a safe and sustainable source of water.”

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