Pitt Alum receives Grainger Award for water filter system

Pitt alum Abul Hussam was recently awarded the Grainger Challenge Prize Gold Award by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and The Grainger Foundation for his invention of the SONO filter, which removes arsenic from drinking water.

NAE President Wm. A. Wulf stated in a National Academics press release that the goal of the $1 million prize is “to accelerate the development and dissemination of technologies that enhance social and environmental sustainability for the benefit of current and future generations.”

This year, the theme of the challenge was to design, develop, and test a water purifier system that is both workable and capable of lasting for a long time. The filter is meant to be used in developing countries, such as Bangladesh and India.

According to the NAE, the drinking water in Bangladesh and other countries contains up to 50 times the amount of arsenic that is safe to drink. Such high levels of arsenic heighten an individual’s risk of developing skin cancer and or brain tumors.

Arsenic is undetectable by taste or smell. Water that appears crystal-clear can contain arsenic. People who consume unhealthy amounts of arsenic can develop lung disease decades later. This prospect led Hussam to act.

Hussam began developing this filter in 1987 when he found that the drinking water in his hometown of Kushtai, Bangladesh was contaminated with arsenic. With the help of his brother, he set up a testing site and began the development of a filter that evolved into the SONO filter.

Hussam stated that his research and teaching in analytical chemistry and chemical equilibria, as well as his knowledge of the basic chemistry of arsenic, have helped him create a system that measures and controls arsenic levels.

“These [experiences] helped me to design a better filter. Measurement is the key in this development, and I have the key,” Hussam stated.

Hussam completed his B.S. in chemistry and M.S. in physical inorganic chemistry at the University of Dhaka, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1976. In 1982, he completed his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh.

Currently, Hussam works as a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Hussam has published over 90 scholarly articles. His research aims to understand the chemistry behind arsenic in water and how a filter can be built to remove this arsenic.
As explained by the Mason Gazette, the SONO filter is a three-bucket (or kashi) system that filters out arsenic from drinking water. The water enters through the top bucket, which is filled with river sand that filters the water.

Next, the water enters the second bucket. In addition to river sand, this bucket contains wood charcoal, which filters organic substances, and brick chips, which remove fine particles in the water. After the second bucket, the water enters the third bucket, where it is ready to be used.

According to a Washington Post article, the filter contains 20 pounds of iron, which bond with the arsenic. This bonding ensures that the arsenic does not enter the filtered water in the presence of oxygen.

According to Hussam, the SONO filter is currently being installed at a rate of approximately 200 filters per week in Kushtia, Bangledesh.

Hussam stated, “It is satisfying to see people use our filter and feel a sense of well-being. When I drink this water at my home in Kushtia, Bangladesh, I know exactly the water quality.”

The cost of each filter is between $35 and $40. Each filter can provide water to 400,000 people.

The filter can produce 20 liters of water in an hour. Newer models can produce more than 50 liters per hour. With the use of the prize money, Hussam plans to scale down the filtration system to make a tabletop unit and also scale it up to create a system that can be used nationwide in the United States.

According to Hussam’s website, there are over 10,000 of his purifying water systems present in Bangladesh.

When asked about the bridge between science and society, Hussam stated, “In this country the news media is overselling the potential of some of the exotic technologies.... This has diverted resources from developing sustainable technologies by using known solutions. The issue of water and health in most underdeveloped and developing countries can be solved through simple but local initiatives.”

Hussam is also developing a surface water filter to get rid of bacteria and viruses from surface water. He stated that his current goals revolve around finding a solution for “clean drinking water and peace.”