Pitt Alumnus Receives $1 Million Prize for Filter That Removes Arsenic From Drinking Water

Issue Date: 
March 26, 2007

A simple, inexpensive filter that removes arsenic from drinking water has won its inventor, Pitt alumnus Abul Hussam, the $1 million Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability.

The device, called the SONO filter, is saving lives in Hussam’s native Bangladesh.

Hussam said he never could have created the device—which purifies water through a series of sand, wood, brick, and iron-composite filters—without the knowledge of analytical chemistry he acquired as a doctoral student here.

“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, today an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at George Mason University, earned his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at Pitt in 1982.

While at Pitt, Hussam became adept at trace analysis, or finding minute traces of substances in water. That skill would come in handy in the late 1990s, when Hussam’s brother, a physician in their hometown of Kushtia, Bangladesh, shared with Hussam his suspicion that some of his patients were suffering from arsenic poisoning.

Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian countries have reported high rates of arsenic poisoning in recent years. The naturally occurring toxic substance enters well water at levels far above those considered safe. Arsenic poisoning can lead to organ failure, cancer, and death. Children and malnourished adults are particularly vulnerable.

The only way for Hussam to know whether arsenic was causing the symptoms his brother was seeing in his patients—painful skin nodules, liver problems, and weakness—was to measure its concentration in water samples. That represented the first step in building the SONO filter. Once Hussam knew the level of arsenic in groundwater, he could design a filter powerful enough to eliminate the poisonous mineral. 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 had drunk from while growing up—contained three-to-40 times the maximum amount of arsenic considered safe.

“We found arsenic in almost the whole neighborhood. In the city [of Kushtia], almost 60 percent of the wells were contaminated,” Hussam said. “Measurement was the key to developing an effective filter.”

Hussam said the analytical chemistry he learned while studying at Pitt under his doctoral advisor, Johannes Coetzee, currently an emeritus professor of analytical chemistry here, and coadvisor Stephen Weber, a Pitt professor of bioanalytical chemistry, was “absolutely essential” to developing the SONO filter.

After leaving Pitt, Hussam had lost touch with his advisers. But soon after The Washington Post published a story about his award-winning invention last month, Hussam received a phone call from a man who asked him detailed questions about trace analysis. Hussam did not catch the caller’s name at first.

“He asked me, ‘What was the species of arsenic I had found in the water?’” Hussam recalled. “And I thought that this person really knew what he was talking about because very few people ask me that question.”

Asked to mail the caller copies of his research papers, Hussam began taking down the man’s name and address. As the caller spelled his name—Johannes Coetzee—Hussam realized he was speaking with his former adviser.

“It was a very pleasant surprise when I read the article about Abul,” said Coetzee, who retired in 1989 after 37 years at Pitt and who now lives near Washington, D.C. “When we talked, he said it was the best day of his life. I was delighted.”

Coetzee added, “I’m not shocked that Abul created the SONO filter, because he certainly had the ability. His filter is a major contribution to science and to the welfare of Bangladeshis. I think he can be a role model for young chemists. 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.

“It’s very rewarding for me as an advisor,” Coetzee said, adding with a laugh, “Obviously, I didn’t do too many things wrong” in advising Hussam.

For Hussam, reconnecting with Coet-zee brought back happy memories of the U.S. city and campus he had come to love in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Pittsburgh was the first American city Hussam lived in—his “hometown America,” he calls it. His wife, Meherun Nahar, graduated from Pitt in 1983 with a master’s degree in chemistry; she also studied under Professor Weber, Hussam said. Their son was born in Pittsburgh.

Hussam even remembers fondly the smell of smoke in the air during the twilight era of Pittsburgh’s colossal steel mills. The smell reminded him of his parents’ home in India, he says.

“Those were very good times,” Hussam recalled. “The city’s sports teams were doing extremely well and we’d get together with our friends to watch football. I tell my best students to go to Pitt because the facilities and education are superb. What I learned at Pitt helped me tremendously. I was fortunate to work with the top scientists in analytical chemistry.”

The Grainger Challenge Prize was created in 2005 to spur the development of arsenic filters that would be simple and affordable (no electricity required, for example) and within the manufacturing capabilities of developing countries. The competition 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.

Hussam said he has set aside 70 percent of his $1 million prize to fund further development and distribution of the SONO filter. His goal is to produce 1,000 of the handmade devices each week. The cost of the filter’s plastic casing drives the price to about $40. As of this year, 30,000 of the filters have been distributed in Bangladesh, 20,000 of those for free, he said. One SONO filter purifies enough water in two hours to serve the daily needs of a family of five, according to Hussam.

He said several American communities have contacted him about the SONO filter. Groundwater in parts of the United States, particularly in northern states such as Minnesota and the Dakotas, contain a significant amount of arsenic, he noted. But a new filter must be developed for American households to accommodate the stronger water flow produced by indoor plumbing, said Hussam, who is using some of his Grainger prize money to fund research at George Mason University on an arsenic filter for industrialized countries.

“I thought my work [on the SONO filter] was over,” Hussam said, “but it seems that it has just begun.”