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Researchers earn $200,000 prize for filtering arsenic from water wells

International team led by Lehigh University engineer garners Silver Award in NAE's Grainger Challenge for Sustainability

Lehigh University

An international team of engineers led by Lehigh Prof. Arup SenGupta has won a $200,000 prize for its efforts to counter what some people have called the world's worst environmental catastrophe.

The researchers, who have designed a system that filters arsenic from well water, will receive the Silver Award in a contest sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and The Grainger Foundation.

The awards were announced today (Feb. 1) by NAE and will be presented at the 2007 NAE Awards Dinner on Tuesday, Feb. 20, in Washington, D.C.

The 2007 Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability sought innovative solutions for removing arsenic from drinking water. Of the 70 teams submitting entries, three won prizes. The NAE, a private, nonprofit institution, advises the federal government and conducts engineering studies. The Grainger Foundation supports education, museums, health care and human services.

The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 100 million people in India and Bangladesh may be drinking well water that contains toxic levels of arsenic. Victims suffer skin lesions, cancer and even death. WHO calls the phenomenon the "largest mass poisoning of a population in history."

"Cupful by cupful, the people of Bangladesh and other developing countries are being poisoned by drinking water from tube wells," says the Grainger Challenge website. "Tens of millions of Bangladeshis - as many as a quarter of the total population - use wells that provide water containing 10 to 50 times the amount of arsenic considered safe." Bangladesh has a population of about 140 million.

SenGupta, the P.C. Rossin Professor of civil and environmental engineering and also of chemical engineering, was asked in 1995 by the nonprofit organization Water For People to design an arsenic-removal system. An expert in the removal of trace contaminants, SenGupta has taught and consulted in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Germany and Ecuador.

SenGupta will share the Grainger Challenger Silver Award with Water for People and also with John Greenleaf, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering; Lee Blaney '05, a graduate student in environmental engineering; Owen E. Boyd, CEO of SolmeteX Co. in Northborough, Mass.; and Arun K. Deb, retired vice president of Weston Solutions Inc. in West Chester, Pa. Sudipta Sarkar, a post-doctoral associate in SenGupta's laboratory, and Prasun Chatterjee, a doctoral student in the environmental engineering program, also contributed significantly to the Grainger Challenge project.

SenGupta's laboratory is credited with developing and commercializing the first polymer-based arsenic-selective adsorbent. Working with Luis Cumbal, who earned a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Lehigh in 2004, SenGupta learned to "impregnate" columns of tiny, polymeric ion-exchange beads with ferric hydroxide nanoparticles. The iron transmits its affinity for arsenic to the beads. The beads provide a sturdy mechanism for the fine iron powder, which would otherwise clump and clog the column, making arsenic removal inefficient or impossible. The result is a hybrid sorbent that removes arsenic from water.

The hybrid sorbent is employed in the Indian subcontinent and in more than 200 sites in the U.S. to remove arsenic from contaminated groundwater.

In Eastern India since 1997, SenGupta's filtration systems have been installed in 150 villages by students and professors from Bengal Engineering and Science University. Arsenic levels in the villages' drinking water have fallen from 100 to 500 parts per billion to well below the 50 ppb maximum allowed by the Indian government. Victims have found relief from their symptoms, and reports of new cases of arsenicosis have plummeted.

Each filtration system is built in India. Cost of installation ranges from $1,200 to $1,500 and is usually paid by villagers. The systems are operated with a hand pump and require no electric power or chemicals. They are maintained by village committees with help from Bengal Engineering and Science University.

Recent history, says SenGupta, suggests that solutions to the environmental problems of developing countries, when imposed "top-down" from outside, can cause as much harm as good.

The residents of Bangladesh and Eastern India once obtained their drinking water from rivers, streams and ponds polluted with human and animal waste. Cholera, typhoid, diarrhea and other water-borne diseases killed hundreds of thousands of people each year.

In the 1970s, UNICEF and other aid agencies helped the government of Bangladesh build tube wells to tap underground aquifers whose water was presumed to be safe for drinking.

It was not until 1994 that toxic levels of arsenic were discovered in the wells, SenGupta says. (Arsenic is not present in the region's surface water, he adds.) The arsenic was not generated by human activity, and scientists have not yet determined its origin.

"We do not know how long the arsenic has been in the groundwater," says SenGupta, who is a native of Eastern India. "We do not know why we find it in one township and not the next, and why we sometimes find it in one well but not in another well located just 100 meters away."

In 2002, writing in the Journal of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, of which he was international editor, SenGupta said, "Our attempts to solve the environmental woes of the 'developing' countries with solutions from the 'developed' ones have often been unsatisfactory, if not disastrous."

In 2005, SenGupta and his colleagues from Bengal Engineering and Science University received the Mondialogo Engineering Award for their arsenic- removal efforts in a contest sponsored by Daimler-Chrysler and UNESCO.

The $1-million Gold Award in the NAE-Grainger contest was won by Abul Hussam, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who developed a household water treatment system called the SONO filter. The $100,000 Bronze Award will go to Procter & Gamble Co.'s Children's Safe Drinking Water Program for a coagulation and flocculation water treatment system.


SenGupta's collaborators at Bengal Engineering and Science University include Dr. Anirban Gupta and Debabrata Ghosh.

SenGupta currently holds five U.S. patents for inventions related to environmental processes.

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