Many innovative engineers have successfully tackled the problem of developing water purification systems that can provide safe drinking water to developing countries around the globe who suffer from high concentrations of fluoride, iron, salinity, and arsenic in their water. Often, however, these solutions require significant technical expertise to operate and significant financial resources to repair.
As part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s P3 (People, Prosperity, and the Planet) Awards Competition, a team of 8 engineering students from the University of Arkansas designed a complete water purification system that can be constructed from easily available local materials. The team’s achievement earned it the ASCE Sustainable Development Award, presented at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington D.C., April 25-27.
Working under the direction of faculty advisor Christa Hestekin, from the Ralph E. Martin Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Arkansas, the students designed a unique and innovative system consisting of a treadle pump, built from wood or bamboo, to pull the water from its source; a filter, made of readily available materials like sand, to remove contaminants and improve palatability of water; an electrolysis system to allow chlorination from salt water, using locally sourced salt; and a car battery, which could be sourced from a scrapped car and charged by pedaling a mountain bike connected to a DC motor, which in turn could be obtained from a scrapped scooter. Working with the school’s graphic design students, the students also produced visual instructions for assembly and operation that can be easily understood by the general public.
“We are so excited and thrilled to win the ASCE Sustainability Development Award and to have the students’ hard work acknowledged,” says Hestekin, in accepting the award at the EPA P3 event along with students Lauren Cole, Keiron Durant, Jordan Goss, Shumon Hasan, D.J. Lee, Omar Qasem, Florencio Serrano, and Cayla Tichy. “This is something that our students thought was really important for improving global heath.”
A System Capable of Treating About 1,500 Gallons of Water a DayHestekin said that in Phase I of their project, entitled “Water System for Developing Countries/Disaster Relief Made with Local Materials,” a working model of the water purification system and the schematics of the system were developed and tested. For Phase II, the students have developed relationships with several universities in India and the water purification system will be built and evaluated on-site.
“Getting an award like this from ASCE,” noted Hestekin, “gives us the leverage to go back to our university and talk to them about going to India and supporting Phase II of the project to help us to do more global work like this.”
“The one thing that sets this water purification system apart from other designs is that all the materials used to build it can be found locally,” explained Serrano of the device, which looks something like an exercise bike. “And this is a system that is incredibly cheap, which we estimate will cost about $200. It would be capable of treating about 1,500 gallons of water a day and providing enough clean water at what I would say are World Health Organization standards for drinking, bathing, and cooking for a population of about 375 people.”
“We have developed a system that uses very simple, very well-understood technology that can be put together in a novel process that is capable of disinfecting the water, and with a set of easy-to-read instructions that a person with a very low level of literacy could follow and use to construct the device.”
A Water Purification System that an Individual Home or Village Could Use
This is the 8th year that ASCE has presented an award at the EPA P3 Awards Competition, which in 2014 is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The ASCE Sustainable Development Award, which includes $1,000 to the school and a certificate for each team member, recognizes the team project which best represents three criteria: use of local raw materials, simplicity of design, and widespread impact on quality of life for the developing region. Judging the award were Alex Rosenheim, P.E., LEED AP BD&C, M.ASCE, and chair of the ASCE National Capital Section’s Sustainability Committee; Danmeng Shuai, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at George Washington University; and Andrew W. Reynolds, senior advisor of Space and Advanced Technologies at the U.S. Department of State.
“Because about 80 percent of the world’s health problems are directly related to poor water quality, the theme that drew us to University of Arkansas and many other projects at EPA P3 was water treatment as a challenge to overcome,” explained Rosenheim. “What we really saw as unique from the students from the University of Arkansas is that they developed a whole water purification system that an individual home or village could use and [which could] be feasibly built with locally identified materials.
“What we thought was very impressive was that they identified a process that used car batteries to create chlorine with salt water, [and] which can be used with ocean water or with water and salt added to it. So not only did it have all the components of a fully functional water purification system from drawing water from the ground to drinking it, it also had that extra sustainable component to it.”
We Are Looking at the Future
The EPA P3 Award Competition itself is a 2-phase collegiate contest, where in the first phase interdisciplinary student teams compete for $15,000 grants. Recipients of the Phase I grant use the money to research and develop their design projects during the academic year. The final projects are displayed at the annual National Sustainable Design Expo, where they compete for a Phase II grant that includes funding of up to $90,000 to further develop their project and take it to the marketplace.
“The EPA P3 Competition,” says James H. Johnson, P.E., F.ASCE, director of the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research within its Office of Research and Development, “is for engineering students in four-year or two-year college programs, to create projects that will emphasize the three P’s: improving the quality of life for people; prosperity for creating businesses; and protecting the planet. The idea is to get the best creativity that we can get out of these young people.
“We are in our 10th year of the EPA P3 program and we are very happy in that we have had over 34,000 students participate and about 1,000 faculty members, so it has grown year after year.”
This year the Expo, which included 40 college teams, was co-located with the USA Science and Engineering Festival at the Washington Convention Center. Among the health and environmental topics covered within this year’s projects were the creation of additives that allow for eco-friendly degradation of mulch, development of a sustainable water treatment facility for communities with arsenic in their groundwater, mobile phone applications for citizen scientists to monitor the health of habitants and streams, biodegradable food packaging, and the design of a new kind of fabric made with fibers from bacteria and yeast grown in tea and polymers of corn and soy to create environmentally friendly clothing.
I think we are looking at the future,” emphasized Johnson. “We have young people here who are thinking about solutions to problems in unbounded ways. We often are bounded as adults about [what] we can’t do; these young people are thinking about what can we do and finding a way to get it done. Getting that kind of investment into environmental or sustainable problems is a great payoff because everybody wins.”
What an Amazing Event
The EPA P3 Competition and Design Expo were key components of the USA Science and Engineering Festival, which is the country’s only national science festival. With upwards of 250,000 people in attendance, the free festival was filled with over 3,000 hands-on exhibits, experiments, concerts, and talks from leading scientists and engineers – including an ASCE booth.
“What an amazing event this is,” says Bob Perciasepe, deputy director of EPA, commenting on the EPA P3 Competition and Design Expo and the USA Science and Engineering Festival. “Walking around is such an inspiration. What you are looking at here in this convention center are future civil engineers who, for the first time, are turned on to science and technology.”