Moringa Tree Brings Clean Water to Developing Nations

The water treatment process in America and other developed nations uses chemicals like chlorine to rid water of bacteria and other pathogens. The end result is often similar to what you would taste if you accidentally swallowed the water in your neighbor’s swimming pool (unless you choose to purchase a home water filtration system that reduces chlorine taste and odor).  Sadly, developing countries are not so fortunate…

However, a new project funded by the $10,000 Environmental Protection Agency P3 grant (P3 = people, prosperity and planet) has been undertaken by three Penn State engineers to bring clean water to the developing world. The project is a water treatment process involving the moringa seed, which is known for its ability to purify water and food.

Here’s how it works: Moringa seeds contain cationic (positively-charged) proteins. Each protein contains a peptide sequence that acts as a molecular knife, cutting into the cell walls of bacteria and killing them. Because the protein is positively charged, it clings to and wraps up sediment, which is negatively charged, causing it to settle out of water very quickly. Moringa has been used for thousands of years to clarify water. In fact, the idea of using plants for water purification, in general, is not new. You may recall our post on a water filter that uses oregano to kill pathogens.

There are several advantages to purifying water with the moringa seed. The technology is locally acceptable, sustainable and easily accessed by those in developing countries; it may be grown right within a village, lessening the need for the transport of chemicals. The moringa seed grows naturally in harsh environments. Not only does it bring food and water purification; the oil inside the seeds can also be sold for a profit. In addition, the leaves of the moringa tree are highly nutritious, containing loads of vitamins, minerals and proteins, and can be fed to malnourished children.

But the project is not without its challenges. The research team still has a lot of work to do in terms of perfecting the purification process. Other proteins and organic matter in the seeds add biological oxygen to the water that bacteria use as food, allowing any bacteria in the water to grow. As a result, the water does not stay clean for very long and can only be stored for about a day. To counter this problem, the team suggests adding crushed moringa seeds to the water so the proteins can get in, then adding sand to which the active protein will anchor while the inactive proteins and organic matter are rinsed away. Data shows that the active sand that remains can kill pathogens; it is this active sand that will be the essence of the water purifier.

Convincing the people in developing nations that their water supply is unsafe and in need of purification is another challenge the team will face. Surprisingly, even though they may get sick, they often don’t attribute the cause to a dirty water supply.