Engineering for a Better Tomorrow: Breakthrough in Water Treatment Technology

CleanWater2

Clean water. Most of us take it for granted. However, in many communities in the developing world access to clean water is not guaranteed. On a daily basis millions live without clean water due to the high energy costs associated with running a water treatment plant. Most experience higher rates of illness and a lower quality of life. New technology and better engineering methods are required to develop low-cost, environmentally friendly water treatment facilities.

At Cornell University the AguaClara Project is making headway in the development of zero-energy water-treatment plants that can be built and maintained with locally sourced materials. Monroe Weber-Shirk, faculty advisor on the AguaClara Project, describes its goal as “the development of a disruptive technology.” Using the production of an “engineering jig” as a metaphor, Weber-Shirk’s team strives to create a technology that enables communities around the world the chance to ask, “Could we build and operate a plant like this?”

With the help of AguaClara’s non-profit partner Agua Para el Pueblo, many Honduran communities have been able to answer, “Yes!”

The “jig” under development at Cornell is the AguaClara Automated Design Tool (ADT). Accessible via the web, the tool enables communities to input design requirements and available resources as parameters which are then analyzed to produce a design and bill of materials. This enables a community to construct a site-specific water treatment plant that produces water clean enough to exceed international standards for safe drinking water. Weber-Shirk’s team is closing in on a higher goal: the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for water quality.

In order to reach these clean water standards, AguaClara achieved a significant engineering breakthrough with the design of its Stacked Rapid Sand Filter (SRSF) technology. While sand filtration is a 19th century technology and rapid sand filters have been available for over one hundred years, AguaClara’s SRSF is a major breakthrough in the water treatment industry. With the SRSF, AguaClara is capable of providing 50 liters/sec of water using zero watts of power. By comparison, competing technologies can use 1500 watts to produce 1000 liters/day.

 

AguaClara’s designs have won several design awards in recent years. In 2010, graduate student Karen Swetland led the design team that won the US EPA’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) Award for the design of AguaClara’s Dose Controller System. This fall AguaClara earned another accolade when it was named a Tech Museum Laureate, receiving the Intel Environmental Award at the Museum’s Annual Tech Awards.

A key to AguaClara’s performance is its commitment to social product development. The AguaClara team consists of Weber-Shirk, his graduate students, and a team of 40-60 undergraduate students who join the team on a semester-by-semester basis. With large personnel transitions at regular intervals, one of AguaClara’s major challenges is managing its intellectual property. By capturing the design of the water treatment plants in worksheets, AguaClara teams are able to absorb personnel transitions and continue to solve the problem of providing clean drinking water at low-cost in the developing world.

Cornell University’s AguaClara Project uses Mathcad to analyze design requirements and resources as parameters. Mathcad code drives the design process by producing scripts to generate blueprints (in Autodesk’s Autocad) and a bill of materials (in Microsoft Word).

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