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Ultra-low-cost solution to a big water problem

By Carol Ness

Katya Cherukumilli, an environmental engineering graduate student at UC Berkeley, won first place in the Designing Solutions for Poverty contest for her super-low-cost approach to groundwater purification in India.


The contest was sponsored by the Blum Center for Global Engagement at UC Irvine, the interdisciplinary hub that’s a sibling to Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies.

Cherukumilli, who is part of the Gadgil Lab at Berkeley, was born in Andhra Pradash, India, not far from the Nalgonda District. Her contest entry takes aim at the problem of water contamination by naturally occurring fluoride in Nalgonda; small quantities of fluoride are considered good for human teeth but larger amounts are toxic.

Her proposal, which was supported by the Big Ideas program, would use slightly processed bauxite, an aluminum-rich ore, to remove the excess fluoride. The approach would cut the cost of cleaning up drinking water from $50 to $1 per person, Cherukumilli said in her contest presentation.

A profile of Cherukumilli’s winning idea was posted on the American Bazaar website, a portal for Indian American news.

The article quotes UC Irvine Blum Center director Richard Matthew as saying the Blum Center is working to match Cherukumilli, along with the contest’s second- and third-place winners, with experts and labs needed to bring their ideas to reality.

Cherukumilli expects to graduate with her Ph.D. in environmental engineering in May 2017.