The teen's discovery earned her a $50,000 prize.

By Gillie Houston
Updated May 24, 2017
Credit: © Getty Images/EyeEm

Most people look at an orange peel as fodder for the trash can; Kiara Nirghin, a teenaged schoolgirl from South Africa, saw it as a chance to make a difference in her drought-plagued homeland. Nirghin recently took home the top prize at Google's annual science fair, which sought out innovative ideas from the world's best and brightest 13- to 18-year-olds.

Earlier this year, the 16-year-old Nirghin, who is in the 11th grade at Saint Martin's high school in South Africa, entered her fruity project into the running for the Africa regional Google Science Fair Community Impact Award, impressing the judges with her unique discovery and earning a spot at the international competition at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California.

That discovery, which Nirghin outlined in her online submission, was a result of two months of research on various fruits and their ability to produce polymers. The teen discovered that citrus fruit contained the highest concentration of these polymers, which could be extracted and used to create a natural super-absorbent polymer that, when added to soil, would allow it to retain massive amounts of water.

This ability to absorb higher amounts of water would be particularly useful in her home country, which recently experienced its worst drought in several decades. According to the BBC, Nirghin's "orange peel mixture," which could be sustainably concocted from the waste of the juice industry, is an all-natural and inexpensive alternative to the non-biogradeable super-absorbent polymers currently used to improve water retention in soil.

In order to extract these polymers from the peels, the budding scientist applied ultraviolet light, heat, and natural oils found in avocado peels to boiled orange peels. The mixture that resulted from these tests was proven to absorb 76.1 percent of water.

"The product is fully biodegradeable, low-cost and has better water retaining properties than commercial SAPs," Nirghin writes. "The only resources involved in the creation of the 'orange peel mixture' were electricity and me, no special equipment nor materials were required."

For her impressive innovation, the teen was rewarded a $50,000 prize from Google. But perhaps the greatest reward of all was the knowledge that she would be able to make a difference in the lives of her community's farmers, one peel at a time.