It is rare that we get to combine science with art, but today on World Art Day, we thought the occasion is quite fitting! Our microbiologists took a closer look at an inspiring scientific project that helped to improve water quality for small artisan communities of jewellery makers and textile dyers in India.

As part of her PhD thesis, Shneel Malik, a student at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, conducted a project in India with an aim to enhance local artisans’ access to uncontaminated water by developing a cheap and accessible technique of water purification.

In India, small-scale artists such as jewellers and textile dyers rely on local groundwater for both work and survival. Unfortunately, because of local enterprises, heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, and arsenic have polluted 80 percent of the water. These poisonous metals harm not only the groundwater itself but also soil and air, wreaking havoc on the entire ecosystem for future generations.

Malik and her team were able to visit numerous sites in Kolkata that specialise in bangle making and sites in Panipat that specialise in textile dyes. All of this happened thanks to the cooperation of multiple non-profit organisations that work to combat pollution. Malik’s team gained a deeper knowledge of the demands that the local craftspeople have, as well as why westernised technology would not work due to the lack of space and financial assistance.

Introducing Indus, a biodesign project to depollute water

Malik’s research resulted in “Indus,” a modular wall system made of clay and algae hydrogel that cleans water by bioremediation, a technique in which algae extract toxins from flowing water and store them within the cell. After noticing how similar computer models of the wall system appeared in the shape of a leaf, which has evolved to effectively transport water across a plant, the design of the wall system was influenced by the very same vein structure. Depending on the quantity of impurities in the water, the algae hydrogel only has to be changed, on average, every couple of months. The “Indus” is an ecologically friendly and resource efficient water-purifying solution since the clay is easily available and the mould is reusable.

The minds behind “Indus” project continue to work on developing a method for eliminating heavy metal contamination from soaked algae hydrogel. After that, the intention is to create a closed-loop incentive system in which heavy metal pollutants may be sold as lucrative raw materials to high-tech enterprises for use in their own manufacturing processes.

In Malik’s own words, the next step for both the project and for her is to gain the label of a social entrepreneur: ‘It’s a creative design-model challenge. It lets me do the design and research and development, but also lets me make it happen. For someone who comes with the vision and belief, it’s important for me to demonstrate how circular economy models and bioeconomic models can be executed.’

Although still in its infancy, “Indus” was awarded £10,000 Art Foundation Futures Award for Material Innovation in February 2021. Without a doubt, “Indus” has a lot of room for expansion and wider application, bringing with itself advantages to other small-scale communities who may benefit from it.

References

Brown, Evan Nicole. (2019). Fast Company. These algae tiles can turn any building into a pollution-scrubbing machine. Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/90416398/these-algae-tiles-can-turn-any-building-into-a-pollution-scrubbing-machine

Hahn, Jennifer. (2019). Dezeen. Bio-ID Lab designs DIY algae-infused tiles that can extract toxic dyes from water. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2019/09/21/bio-id-lab-indus-algae-tiles-water/

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