University of Pittsburgh
March 20, 2007

Pitt Alumnus Wins $1 Million Grainger Award for Developing Filter That Removes Arsenic From Drinking Water

Abul Hussam, first-place winner of the inaugural Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability, earned doctoral degree in analytical chemistry at Pitt in 1982
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PITTSBURGH-University of Pittsburgh alumnus Abul Hussam won the 2007 Grainger Challenge Gold Award for inventing a simple, point-of-use filter that removes arsenic from drinking water; the device is now used in his native Bangladesh.

Hussam, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at George Mason University, recently received the $1 million, first-place prize for developing the low-cost and efficient SONO filter, which purifies water through a series of sand, wood, brick, and iron composite filters. Second- and third-place winners received $200,000 and $100,000, respectively.

The Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability was launched in 2005 to spur the development of a working arsenic filter for purifying groundwater in developing countries such as Bangladesh, where arsenic poisoning is widespread. The prize was sponsored and administered by the National Academy of Engineering and the Illinois-based Grainger Foundation, which supports efficient and globally beneficial innovations in engineering. Other Grainger Challenges will be issued in the future.

"The University of Pittsburgh takes great pride in the news that alumnus Abul Hussam was selected as the first-place winner in the 2007 Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability," said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. "His design and creation of a reliable, affordable, and sustainable method for treating arsenic-contaminated groundwater is helping to solve a massive public health problem-the poisoning of millions of people in Bangladesh and other developing countries."

Hussam earned his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Pitt's Faculty of Arts and Sciences (now the School of Arts and Sciences) in 1982 after receiving his bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh in 1975 and 1976, respectively. His work in Pitt's chemistry department and under his doctoral advisor Johannes Coetzee, emeritus professor of analytical chemistry, and coadvisor Stephen Weber, a professor of bioanalytical chemistry at Pitt, relates directly to the development of the SONO filter, Hussam said.

The first step in constructing the SONO filter was to develop a precise method of detecting minute levels of arsenic in Bangladeshi wells, Hussam said. The testing equipment also had to be simple and portable for trekking across the countryside. Many Southeast Asian countries, Bangladesh especially, have reported high incidences of arsenic poisoning in recent years. The toxic mineral species occur naturally in these cases, entering well water through sediment in levels far above those considered safe. Arsenic poisoning can lead to organ failure, cancer, and death. Children and poor people lacking a nutritious diet are particularly vulnerable, Hussam said.

Once he knew the level of arsenic in the groundwater, Hussam could design a filter powerful enough to eliminate the poisonous mineral. By drawing on his studies at Pitt, Hussam developed a device for measuring arsenic and found that many of the wells he tested-including two he drank from when growing up-contained three to 40 times the maximum amount considered safe.

"We found arsenic in almost the whole neighborhood; in the city, almost 60 percent of the wells were contaminated," Hussam said. "Measurement was the key to developing an effective filter. The analytical chemistry I learned with Professor Coetzee was absolutely essential. Without that I couldn't have done any of this."

"I'm not shocked Abul created the SONO filter because he certainly had the ability," said Coetzee, who retired in 1989 after 37 years at Pitt and now lives near Washington, D.C. "His filter is a major contribution to science and to the welfare of Bangladeshis. He applied the knowledge from his doctoral studies to a practical matter of great importance. You may have 1,000 people with Abul's competence, but only one will make a great achievement. I'm delighted it was him. I think he can be a role model for young chemists."

Hussam and his brother, Abul Munir, established an arsenic-testing lab in their native district of Kushtia in 1997 using Hussam's detection devices. By 1999, Hussam built a functioning SONO filter and it had undergone numerous tests by the Bangladeshi government as well as scientists from other countries and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Several organizations distributed the filter throughout Bangladesh, Hussam said. As of this year, 30,000 filters have been distributed, 20,000 of those for free, he said.

When the Challenge Prize was first introduced, Hussam submitted his substantial stores of governmental, laboratory, and NGO reports on the SONO filter. The contest lasted two years from its 2005 launch to the announcement of winners in Washington on Feb. 20, 2007. Contenders presented proposals for a device that satisfied the challenge criteria: The devices could not require electricity or be outside the manufacturing capabilities of the nations that need them.

Hussam set aside 70 percent of the $1 million prize to fund further development and distribution of the SONO filter, he said. His goal is to produce 1,000 of the handmade devices each week. A quarter of the prize money will go to fund his research at George Mason, where Hussam is developing a similar filter for arsenic-laden wells in the United States, he said.