An Unexpected Discovery Could Be a Real Thirst Quencher!

Scientists stumble upon an exciting solution with great potential benefits.

Drinking water from jug pouring into glass on wooden table outdoors

(Alter-ego /

An amazing thing about science is that sometimes,  great discoveries occur by accident! In this case, scientists were working on a way to clean contaminated water with sunlight, when they discovered a hydrogel instead, that could rapidly achieve their goal. 

A research team at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), UT News reports,  was led to a viable solution for water pollution when a graduate student unexpectedly discovered a hydrogel that could purify contaminated water. Publishing their findings in this study in the journal Advanced Materials, the researchers believe that this discovery will help save lives. 

Billions of people don’t have access to safe drinking water

UNICEF estimates that a third of the world's population does not have access to safe drinking water. In developing nations, where access to clean water is limited, consumption of contaminated water is a major cause of morbidity. 

The hydrogel tablet the team at The University of Texas has been working on, however, offers an exciting solution. It can purify one liter of contaminated water in one hour or less, the UT News article reports. That’s a short amount of time compared to the process in which water is purified today.

Water is most commonly disinfected by pasteurization but this process takes time and energy. The hydrogel tablets generate hydrogen peroxide molecules, the main ingredient in cleaning disinfectants, and activated carbon particles to work together to attack the metabolism of bacteria, stopping their growth. The hydrogel neutralizes bacteria at a >99.999% effective rate and without energy input, according to the UT News report. 

For developing countries that don’t have the means for lengthy and expensive water purifiers, these hydrogels can make a huge difference. Additionally, the hydrogels can be easily drawn from the water afterwards and they leave no harmful byproducts. 

Boy drinking from an outdoor tap

(frank60 /

The hydrogel has the potential to improve other purifiers 

The researchers write that the hydrogels can also be used to improve solar distillation, another water purification system, widely used as a solution to polluted water.  Solar distillation uses sunlight to evaporate water from harmful contaminants, but the technology greatly suffers from biofouling, when the pathogens and bacteria pile up on its equipment. The hydrogels can kill the bacteria, leaving the solar distillation to continue working. 

The team just published their findings in the Advanced Materials journal with Youhong Guo, the graduate student who discovered the hydrogel, as its key author. The team's next goal is to scale up and make the hydrogels available to people, especially those in drought-stricken regions.

Sometimes a new discovery is unexpected but has greater implications than originally intended. Guo and his team are proof of that, as their contributions are just the start of a new way of purifying water at a time when clean water is needed the most. 

Water splashing

(CK Foto /