2bn people don’t have access to clean water: This chemist is developing a solution

8 Aug 2023

From left: Kris O'Dowd and his supervisor Prof Suresh Pillai. Image: James Connolly

PhD researcher Kris O’Dowd is developing a clean water solution for poorer communities.

In a summer ceremony, the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland (ICI) awarded Kris O’Dowd their prestigious Postgraduate Award. To receive this award, a student must have demonstrated “excellence in research” and “a commitment to supporting and promoting chemistry”.

O’Dowd is a PhD researcher in the Department of Environmental Science at Atlantic Technological University. His work is part of the Photo-irradiation and Adsorption-based Novel Innovations for Water Treatment (Paniwater) consortium, which includes 18 research institutions, universities and industrial partners.

His research has the important aim of developing simple, cost-effective solutions for providing clean drinking water. It aligns with the United Nations sustainable development goal six which deals with clean water and sanitation.

The UN has highlighted that the “world’s water-related ecosystems are being degraded at an alarming rate”, as more than 85pc of the planet’s wetlands have been lost. Sustainable development goal six aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” by 2030.

Tell us about your current research.

Currently, 2.1bn people lack access to clean drinking water, and 40pc of the world’s population suffers from water scarcity, with this expected to rise to 50pc by 2025.

The Paniwater consortium is a Horizon 2020-funded group that is developing six different technologies for use in peri-urban and rural India. These include a multifunctional reactor, a photo-electrochemical system, a solar-powered UVC plant, a multistep system, an electrocoagulation system and a transparent jerrycan (TJC) for solar disinfection.

My research is part of the TJC project; this is a collaborative project with the RSCI, Buckinghamshire New University, Platform Solar Almeria-CIEMAT, University of Santiago de Compostela and University of Rey Juan Carlos.

Solar disinfection (SODIS) is a simple and low-cost method to disinfect drinking water; typically, a two-litre polyethylene terephthalate bottle is filled with water and left in the sun for 6-8 hours with the pathogens present being inactivated by UV light.

We are developing a 10-litre polypropylene TJC for use as a solar disinfector that can be used for the collection and treatment of water.

Polypropylene was chosen over PET due to it being a cheaper material and due to its capability of transmitting UV-B. This allows for the enhanced inactivation of certain viruses and protozoa.

To assess the TJC, it has been examined for its antimicrobial efficiency, the structural integrity of the plastic as it ages and the toxicity of potential leachates or photodegradation compounds.

My work has focused on the toxicity analysis of the TJC. We are currently on our third iteration of the containers. Previous containers, unfortunately, became photodegraded too quickly, so we are now testing containers with UV stabilisers to extend the plastic’s lifetime.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

With water scarcity expected to increase in the coming years, having relatively cheap and uncomplicated treatment methods available will be vital in allowing people to obtain safe drinking water.

We hope that the research will impact smaller communities that cannot afford larger treatment plants. With access to clean drinking water, these communities can reduce sickness and infant mortality.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

After spending many years working in a different field, I went back to college to re-educate myself. In my final year of that degree, I had a research project as a module.

This was very different to the style of education I had been used to, whereby you were learning off material and reciting it.

In the research project, I had to use my own initiative to learn the principles of the project, implement them and report on the results. Any problems or challenges that developed in the project had to be solved by me.

I found I really enjoyed this as it tested me in ways I hadn’t been tested before, so I decided to apply for a postgraduate position.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

One of the challenges faced with the development of SODIS is that many people are very unsure of the treatment method. This scepticism by individuals with all the data in front of them could indicate a challenge at the local level when the TJC is piloted.

However, part of the Paniwater project includes resources for the dissemination of information at a local level to help alleviate this challenge.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

I would say the methods in which the public engages with science have changed considerably. Many people get their information from podcasts, social media and forums now.

Unfortunately, many of these sources could be unreliable, but it means that we as scientists have to change how we deliver our research. Most of the public does not want to read a peer-reviewed journal and prefers it in these new formats.

So, if we want our work to be read and understood by the public, we need to use these formats. I am currently participating in the Current Chemistry Investigators outreach programme, which is an informal workshop for secondary schools. It allows secondary students to interact with researchers and gain an understanding of what a researcher does, as many will not know.

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