UT discovery could help get clean water to millions around the world

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Clean water is something most Americans take for granted, but for many people around the world, it is a precious resource.

New research at the University of Texas at Austin could help with that problem — a hydrogel tablet that can be dropped in water and kill nearly all bacteria in the water.

University of Texas Ph.D. student Yuohong Guo shows off the hydrogel tablet. (Courtesy Yuohon Guo)

UT doctoral student Youhong Guo discovered what the hydrogel was capable of while performing a different experiment. The tablet requires no electricity to work, an important requirement in many places around the world, and it is cheap, only costing $6 for a square meter of the material. The hydrogel is made from a compound found in shrimp shells, meaning it is also eco-friendly.

Growing up and looking for clean water

For 15 years, Austinite Gilbert Tuhabonye has supplied clean water to people around the world.

“You have no idea how many children miss school because they have to fetch water,” Tuhabonye said. He grew up in Burundi, a nation in south-central Africa, and spent his childhood fetching water.

“The trips were not short,” Tuhabonye said. “You’re talking one mile down a mountain and you come back with a container full of water, then you run to school. People still do that today.”

Tuhabonye’s annual fundraiser, “Run for the Water”, has supported the construction of water infrastructure in Burundi. The run will take place this year on Nov. 7. For every $30 raised, one person will have access to water for life.

Tuhabonye says UT’s hydrogel tablet could be a game-changer in the fight for clean water.

“It’s going to help tremendously. More people will have clean, clean water,” Tuhabonye said. “For UT to come up with something that is going to affect people globally, make an impact globally, it is amazing. Good news.”

How exactly does UT’s technology clean water?

Youhong Guo’s Hydrogel tablet can kill 99% of bacteria in a liter of water in an hour. (Courtesy: Youhong Guo)

“You can disinfect (a liter of water) in about an hour,” said Guihua Yu, UT associate professor of advanced materials science and engineering, who oversaw the project with Guo. When dropped in water, the hydrogel tablet releases hydrogen peroxide, the same chemical you can buy at the drug store to clean wounds or bleach your hair.

The hydrogen peroxide then kills 99.99% of the bacteria in the water. The tablet can then be removed from the water, with the hydrogen peroxide dissolving, leaving no dangerous chemicals. If the table crumbles, the pieces can be easily fished out.

Guo said that sunlight speeds up the process. “If you make a bigger tablet,” Guo said. “It can absorb (more) solar light and evaporate faster. So you will get distilled water in no time.”

So far, the team has only made small-scale versions of the tablet, but Yu says a bigger lab could make bigger tablets.

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