Oxford mathematicians in Indian arsenic collaboration

The GCRF funds research partnership between Oxford’s Mathematical Institute and India’s IIT Kharagpur to model novel soil-based filter.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta is a global hotspot for arsenic groundwater contamination. Naturally occurring arsenic concentrates in water drawn from deep tube wells, creating a major public health issue in West Bengal and Bangladesh, described as the “largest mass poisoning of a population in history”.

Researchers at the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, led by Prof Sirshendu De, recently developed a novel technology that uses the soil bed to filter arsenic. This product has already been piloted in three communities in India, serving more than 5000 people.

While the spread of single contaminants through porous media is well-known, transport, when multiple contaminants interact through a composite soil bed, is poorly understood. In these pilot areas, pesticides, fertilisers, and heavy metals are all present in the environment and it is unclear how their interaction impacts the effectiveness of the filter.

To develop a better understanding of these processes, IIT Kharagpur has enlisted the help of Oxford mathematicians Ian Griffiths and Sourav Mondal. The Oxford team will employ mathematical modelling techniques to gain insight into the action of the new filter and assess how this emerging technology can realise its full potential to remove contaminants from the soil and groundwater.

The project, which received funding from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) on July 20, will commence at the beginning of August and run for 7 months. During this time, the Oxford team will work to derive a series of predictive mathematical theories based on asymptotic and computational techniques to understand the chemical transport and fluid dynamics processes taking place within the filter. The models will be combined with experiments and field data gathered by IIT Kharagpur to improve the prediction of how these chemicals spread.

The researchers hope that this collaboration will instigate future UK–India research and development co-operation and boost science and technological endeavours aimed at providing solutions to environmental problems, particularly those faced by low-income countries.

The REACH Programme’s first Partnership Funding round recently awarded Catalyst Grants to two arsenic-related projects in Bangladesh: 1) Arsenic Precision Innovative Rapid Easy-to-use Test (AsPIRE Test) and 2) Co-occurrence of heavy metal and antibiotic resistance in microorganisms due to arsenic contamination in water insecure areas of Bangladesh. Further detail of these, and the other REACH Catalyst Grants, can be found here.