Stanford student’s invention gives her a worldwide platform to advocate change

Kiara Nirghin, ’22, developed a unique polymer that can keep crops hydrated during dry spells. The innovative research has garnered her global recognition, including top honors at the Google Science Fair.

In 2013, Kiara Nirghin’s home country of South Africa was reeling from the worst drought in 30 years. The dry spell was so severe that government officials implemented strict water restrictions and declared disaster areas in five provinces. The agricultural industry was hit particularly hard as crops dried up, farmers went out of business and food production prices soared.

Kiara Nirghin, ’22, invented a low-cost, biodegradable polymer that can save crops during droughts. (Image credit: Alex Kekauoha)

“It was like this entire wave hitting us,” Nirghin said. “It was really bad.”

Nirghin, who grew up in Johannesburg and was just 13 at the time, was facing her own crisis. She had contracted a parasite-induced disease called bilharzia, causing her to lose weight and become jaundiced. With a weakened immune system, she then developed a serious case of bacterial meningitis. She spent weeks in a hospital and months in recovery.

But Nirghin’s recovery was not wasted time. She kept up with her studies and pursued her love for science by reading research publications. It was also a deeply introspective period of her life, during which she began to seriously consider some of the social, economic and environmental challenges her country was facing, including the efficacy of policies put forth to address the drought.

“I was young at the time, but I knew that the solutions being put in place were not groundbreaking,” she said. “So I started looking at the problem and saw how I could break it down into something that I could solve.”

The solution she created was a unique polymer that can hold water reserves hundreds of times its own weight and prevent crops from drying up. Nirghin’s innovation has since captured the attention of the science community, world leaders and corporate America. It’s also given her a platform to address the issues she cares about most: climate change, education and gender equity in STEM.

An innovative solution

After leaving the hospital, Nirghin headed home, where she began tinkering with various materials. Her research focused on superabsorbent polymers, or SAPs, which are materials made of long strands of recurring molecules and can retain large amounts of water relative to their own weight. SAPs are nothing new to the agricultural industry; they’re often applied to crops to keep them from drying up. But industry SAPs are expensive to make, contain harmful chemicals and are non-biodegradable.

Kiara Nirghin, ’22, addresses the United Nations in New York on International Women’s Day, Friday, March 8, 2019. (Image credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown)

Nirghin researched organic materials and discovered that a unique polymerized mixture of orange peels and avocado skins contained the necessary properties to retain large amounts of water. The substance she created, which comes in a white powder form, can be added to soil. When water is applied, the substance will hold the water and slowly release it over a long period of time, keeping the crop hydrated, even during dry spells.

“It retains the same amount of water as chemical SAPs and it improves soil quality because it is biodegradable,” Nirghin explained. “It also increases food security because, in theory, farmers can make it themselves.”

The invention is also low-cost and sustainable because it uses waste products from the juice manufacturing industry.

Nirghin is investigating the many questions related to her invention, such as whether it produces any chemical byproducts, has multiple applications and whether it has the potential to protect trees from wildfires.

A winning technology

In 2016, Nirghin submitted the polymer technology to the Google Science Fair, where she won the grand prize. The victory has since captured the attention of numerous interests, and given rise to a platform for Nirghin to speak about climate change, science and education.

Nirghin has been named one of TIME magazine’s 30 most influential teens and one of Glamour magazine’s College Women of the Year. She also was selected to sit on Facebook’s Youth Board, a committee of 10 young leaders from around the world who are working with the company to create a digital borderless state.

Nirghin has also been invited to address the United Nations multiple times, including on International Women’s Day last year when she spoke about the importance of encouraging young girls to pursue STEM. She received a warm reception from the audience, which included Stanford alums in New York who, after learning of her speech, decided to attend and cheer her on with Stanford banners. She has also published a memoir called Youth Revolution, which chronicles her health struggles, developing the polymer technology and winning the science fair.

Nirghin, now a Stanford sophomore, recently declared a computer science major with a biocomputation track. She plans to continue advocating for the issues that are important to her while learning how to innovate in her field.

“I have definitely seen the potential technology can have in innovation and that’s my main driving force,” she said. “I want to innovate and solve problems and create products that help people. That’s what I see myself doing.”