How Cellulose-Based Filtration is Rising to the Challenge of Water Contamination

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By David Arome

Access to basic drinking water is still a challenge in Africa especially in rural communities. The trend is quite
alarming and has exposed the locals to water-borne diseases. According to the WHO/UNICEF Progress Report 2020, about 387 million people lived without access to basic drinking water services in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In a virtual interview with Dr Ngonye Keroletswe, a distinguished ARISE fellow and researcher at the Nanomaterials Division, Department of Natural Resources and Materials at the Botswana Institute for Technology Research and Innovation (BITRI) in Botswana, we discussed her groundbreaking work in materials science. Dr. Keroletswe who is on an ongoing research project on “Sustainable Water Filtration Using Cellulose-Based Membranes Derived from Local Biomass, spotlighted her innovative research approach to help solve the daunting deficiency of portable, safe, and clean water in not just Botswana but Africa at large.

She noted that the innovative research was born out of a pressing need to address long-standing water challenges, coupled with the issue of salinity and nitrate from pit latrines in Botswana. “The research takes advantage of the abundance of invasive plant species such as sisal and Prosopis (mesquite), which have a high cellulose content, as a source material in the water filtration project to meet the needs of the people, Dr Keroletswe said.”

Primarily found in rural communities, these plant species can serve as traps for water treatment. Communities can use these plants and transformed materials to purify their water. It is an ongoing process that requires continued improvement. This, in turn, will contribute to bringing positivity into the lives of our people, as well as facilitating their commercialization and sale to other African countries.

Looking at the advantages of cellulose over synthetic polymers, Dr Keroletswe noted that most synthetic polymer filters are non-biodegradable, resulting in waste when discarded into the environment, while cellulose derived from plants easily decomposes into the soil without causing harm to plants, insects, or animals. So, preserving the ecosystem, not destroying it, is paramount at this time. In addition, since the plants are free, there is hope that the resulting filters will be affordable for the local population. Furthermore, the versatility of the plants, with multiple groups capable of adapting and modifying them to treat various water contaminants, is another advantage of using cellulose over synthetic polymers.

In terms of sustainability, these plants thrive with minimal water requirements, thereby establishing a sustainable form of agriculture. “The research is still in progress, with great expectation of success where the local communities continue to cultivate these plants in a controllable manner, making sure that they don’t harm the environment but that they can make money from them” she added.

This procedure aims for commercialization, whereby individuals who adapt the methodology to produce filters will purchase these plants from the respective communities. In a sense, this is a sustainable method of producing cellulose, which in turn generates income for the local communities.

Dr. Keroletswe hinted that “one of the most pressing challenges encountered in the ongoing research is finding the right chemical to improve the membrane’s ability to remove contaminants. Also, the bureaucracy from the supplier, prolongs the time it takes to get the ordered items, leading to a delay in the research process.”
Furthermore, implementing a proposed methodology in the laboratory may sometimes fail to produce the expected results. This has prompted efforts to refine the methods and explore alternative options to improve their efficiency in removing nitrates from water.

“The rewarding aspect of the project is that the research gives me the opportunity to impact the lives of my community, as I come from a place where water contamination is a problem. So, I see this research as an avenue to contribute not just to my community but to the world at large. I firmly believe that Africa possesses the ability to solve her problems, Dr. Keroletswe said.

The anticipated product aims to enhance the lives of these communities by providing them with clean water. We
understand that water is fundamental to life and essential for all activities. I am aware that achieving this goal will bring me immense joy and fulfilment. Furthermore, putting what I learned in the classroom into practice is extremely rewarding for me.
Regarding the future and prospects of innovation, I am thrilled to witness other Africans engaged in water filtration projects, utilizing a variety of materials. This speaks volumes about the collective efforts of African researchers in developing materials that will help improve the lives of people. With this effort, I have no doubt that in 10 to 20 years, cholera and diarrhoea will be stories of the past.

“I strongly believe Africa will get there even faster than we all thought; considering the support and funding received from the ARISE grant, it is a driving force to apply ourselves and save Africa. It’s only Africans that can serve Africa” Dr. Keroletswe stressed.

Keeping up with the emerging challenges in the water filtration sector, this innovative research project is laying the foundation for material science research in Africa. When combined with the technical know-how we are developing internally, it prepares us ahead of time to effectively handle any future challenges.

In making research translation beyond paperwork to reality. Dr. Keroletswe further noted that in Africa, most of the research is paper-based publication, because most of the researchers are from the university. In the university, you have to meet certain number of publications to be promoted from one level to another. That’s why at BITRI, we are taking a different dimension to it, translating research into products. So, researchers in Africa can change the perspective moving away from just writing articles and looking into getting real products that can impact lives.

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