Press-Citizen: Clean Water, Cheap

Friday, April 23, 2010

UI Students Develop Device for Ghana Village

By B. A. Morelli
Iowa City Press-Citizen

A low-cost device to aid in water purification could make the difference between clean and dirty drinking water for a small village in Ghana, the University of Iowa engineering students who developed it said.

The device, which was developed as part of a larger project to improve drinking water and sanitation in the small Ghanaian village of Kobriti, is made from common plumbing supplies, said Craig Just, the faculty adviser for the project.

The hand-held contraption, which costs less than $10 to make, creates a bleach concentrate from salt water, which is used to sanitize dirty water, Just said.

"The latest design is real practical," Just said. "They are just plumbing supplies you get from Menard's. You can design and build it in the States and ship it over, or try to find parts in the country, and build it there."

The purification device originated from students in Just's 2006 Design for the Developing World class. The class received a $10,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop the device, and the 2007 class won an additional $75,000 to continue the project.

Later, the UI chapter of Engineers Without Borders took over the project.

The chapter is hosting a benefit called "An Evening with Engineers Without Borders," featuring its Ghana Project, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. today at Old Brick, 26 E. Market St. The event will include Ghanaian food, dancing music, a silent auction and more.

UI was approved this month for a five-year partnership through Engineers Without Borders to continue working with Kobriti, a remote, agricultural village with no electricity, to continue developing the device and target other human needs projects.

In January, Just and three students traveled to Kobriti to learn about the village's needs, and four students will spend five more weeks in Kobriti this summer for a community health survey and other research.

"Visiting the community alone, you realize a lot of things you take for granted aren't available, like clean drinking water," said Thomas Bang, 21, a UI junior who went in January and is planning to travel to Ghana this summer. "I think they have the capacity to do it, just no one has opened the door for them."

The project's intent is not just to introduce new technology but to teach the village how to do use it and improve their sanitation, Bang said.

Michael Schaefer, 23, a UI master's student in environmental engineering and president of the UI chapter of Engineers Without Borders, was part of the January trip. Learning about the village's needs rather than simply dropping off the technology is an important step in improving conditions, he said.

"I think directly, maybe the difference hasn't been realized," Schaefer said. "First, in order to do it right, we could step in and drop off the technology, but it's been proven through the years and different development projects that that way doesn't work. Instead, we work with the community on what the issues are, and hopefully we will provide a better long-term project."