Three Buckets Win a Million Bucks
On Monday, only a few days before Thanksgiving, we awoke to
find the ground and our street covered with snow. Here in New
Jersey it’s not that unusual to have some snow at this time of
year. It is very unusual that many trees have barely begun to
shed their leaves. The maples are at their peak fall color, with
brilliant reds and yellows that stand out even on a dark and
gloomy day. The leaves on other trees are still green and have
not even begun to change color.
You might think this prolonging of autumn’s glory would be a
welcome sight. However, with leaves still on the trees, the
gutters can’t be cleaned and homeowners and gardeners can’t
complete gathering up the last leaves before winter sets in. What
happens if we get a heavy snow that piles up before the leaves
have fallen? The reason the leaves are still hanging around is no
doubt our lack of enough frosty cold weather. Global warming?
Maybe not, but I’ve never seen such glorious colors this late in
the year in my 55 years in New Jersey.
Mulling over this prolonged autumn, I logged on to AOL News
and found an article by Arthur Max on the report issued last
week by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)
headlined “UN Panel Offers Dire Warming Forecast”. You’ll
recall this panel shared a Nobel Prize with Al Gore earlier this
year. The latest report has hardened the IPCC’s message,
predicting droughts, floods, extinctions of plant and animal
species, etc., if the carbon emissions do not start down by 2015.
With global warming, more severe storms are in the cards. Is the
terrible cyclone that just hit Bangladesh one of them? It’s not
possible to answer this question. With thousands of people killed
and vastly more homeless, the country is suffering a tragic loss.
Yesterday I read the fall issue of a newsletter from the
Department of Chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, where I
did my graduate work. The newsletter contained an article by
Morgan Kelly containing a welcome bit of good news for
Bangladesh and for a Pitt alumnus from Bangladesh.
A serious problem in Bangladesh, and in regions of India, Nepal
and some other countries, is contamination of the groundwater
with arsenic. This contamination occurs naturally, not due to
industrial wastes. Lest we be complacent, the article points out
that even here in certain parts of the U.S., for example, in
Minnesota and the Dakotas, groundwater may contain significant
amounts of arsenic. Incidentally, I still shudder when I recall,
when at Bell Labs, one of our crystal pullers exploded while we
were growing a germanium crystal doped with arsenic!
Abul Hussam grew up in the city of Kushtia in Bangladesh. He
came to America in 1978 as a graduate student at Pitt, where he
earned his PhD in analytical chemistry in 1982. While in
Pittsburgh, he became a U.S. citizen but certainly did not sever
his ties with his native Bangladesh. I think it’s safe to say that
normally one does not think of the field of analytical chemistry
as one of the “glamour” areas of chemistry in which an
individual is likely to receive worldwide acclaim. However, I’ve
changed my mind when it comes to Hussam, who this year won
the Grainger Challenge Prize and a cool one million dollars!
When I wanted more information on Hussam I searched the Web
and was surprised to find myself on a U.S. Department of State
site, usinfo.state.org. I was also surprised to find that Condi
Rice’s department provided more details of the technology and
chemistry involved in the item for which the award was
presented than I found in the chemistry department newsletter.
First, what is the Grainger Challenge Prize? The award was
created by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) with
support from the Illinois-based Grainger Foundation, a
foundation that supports globally beneficial innovations in
The NAE challenged the engineering community to come up
with a system for removing arsenic from groundwater originating
in so-called tube wells in developing countries. The system had
to meet a long list of requirements but essentially had to reduce
the content of arsenic to acceptable levels, had to be practical,
environmentally and economically viable as well as to be
manufacturable and serviceable in a developing country. There
were 75 entries, including Hussam’s system, which he calls the
How did Hussam come to work on his SONO filter? Hussam’s
brother back in Kushtia was (is?) a physician who found his
patients coming to him with liver problems, painful nodules on
their skin and general weakness, symptoms that suggested the
possibility of arsenic poisoning. His brother asked Hussam, with
his analytical expertise in trace analysis of impurities, to devise a
method they could use to analyze for arsenic in water. Hussam,
a professor of chemistry at George Mason University since 1983,
developed an electrochemical analyzer suitable for the job.
In Kushtia, Hussam started measuring the levels of arsenic in
water from various wells, starting with his home well. He found
from 160 to190 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic; 50 ppb is
considered the upper safe limit. Other wells ranged up to 40
times the safe limit! Hussam, who realized he had grown up
drinking that water, decided to do something about the problem
and began working on a filter that could remove the arsenic. The
result was the SONO filter – and the million-dollar prize.
It often seems that elegant inventions are the essence of
simplicity. Using no electricity, the SONO filter is simply three
stacked buckets. The top bucket contains a mix of coarse river
sand and an iron composite of some sort. The iron composite
takes out the arsenic. The middle bucket contains more coarse
river sand and wood charcoal, which picks up organic impurities.
The bottom bucket contains fine river sand and brick chips; this
combination serves to remove fine particles and to stabilize the
flow of water through the filter. The SONO filter only costs $35-
40 and is being manufactured in Bangladesh. It reportedly
delivers 20 liters of good water per hour, doesn’t produce any
hazardous waste and lasts five years.
Hussam and his family were fortunate in that, even though they
were drinking from wells with more than the safe limit of
arsenic, none developed obvious symptoms of arsenic poisoning.
Hussam has dedicated 70 percent of his million-dollar prize to
additional development of the filter and to distributing it. Over
30,000 filters have been distributed in Bangladesh; 20,000 of
them were given away free. More than a thousand schools have
received the SONO filters. Pitt can be justly proud of Hussam,
who credits his training at Pitt with helping him tremendously in
Before posting this column today, I took my wife’s car to
Morristown for servicing. The colors of the trees and shrubbery
along the way were every bit as beautiful as those in New
England at their peak. When I got home I decided to get a
haircut and my barber kept the door open part way because of the
warm weather. Commenting on the warm temperatures as I was
leaving, he said, “As a scientist you know, of course, that this
global warming is just the natural cycle and all this about us
putting this stuff in the air causing the warming is garbage.”
Hey, I would have stayed and tried to convince him otherwise
but I had to take advantage of the warm weather to get my car
washed before posting this column. Have a good Thanksgiving.
Allen F. Bortrum