In developing countries, dirty water kills: more than 1.9 million people die each year from illnesses related to unsafe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. Many of those deaths could be prevented by water filtration, but in the poorest countries water filters can be too expensive to buy. That’s why one professor and his student at Temple’s College of Public Health are experimenting with a new method of water purification that could make big waves. It’s low-cost. It’s sustainable. It’s…a loofah.
It turns out that the scrubber hanging in your shower is actually an edible gourd cultivated in Asia’s tropical and subtropical regions. Lok Pokhrel, assistant professor of environmental health at the college, ate it growing up in Nepal. Loofah gourds are soft and slightly sweet when young, but as they mature they become fibrous and spongy. That makes them great for exfoliation—and it also gave Pokhrel an idea.
He enlisted undergraduate public health major Zach Jacobs to collaborate on designing a renewable water filtration system made from loofahs. Together they developed a way to coat the spongy insides of the gourd with silver nanoparticles (microscopic, naturally antimicrobial silver particles), slice the gourd into disk-shaped segments, and place those disks inside water pipes. “There isn't any research on innovative plant-based filters, so we think this is a good direction to pursue,” says Jacobs. Pokhrel explains the potential benefits: “If a family could grow a filter in their backyard and apply a solution of silver nanoparticles that they had been given, deaths due to lack of access to clean drinking water could be reduced,” he says.
Although their research is still preliminary, Pokhrel and Jacobs have successfully used loofah filters to remove E. coli bacteria from water samples—proof that their idea has real promise. And their work has received significant attention at Temple: in 2015, Jacobs won the College of Public Health Dean’s Undergraduate Research Award. As they continue to refine and test their loofah water filters, Pokhrel and Jacobs hope to remind others that sometimes uncommon solutions can be found in the most common places.
You can learn about more of Lok Pokhrel’s research here.