Epics Team Tackles Clean Water Challenge
This spring, a team of second-year EPICS students took on more than an academic challenge: They were asked to devise a simple sustainable water-purification system for villagers in the remote provinces of Central Asia. EPICS courses routinely ask undergraduates to solve real-world engineering problems—in this case, meeting a basic need for people living in such severe poverty provided added motivation.
Courses in EPICS (Engineering Practices Introductory Course Sequence) divide students into teams. Each team functions as a de facto engineering firm, ushering a project through the conception, assessment, economic evaluation and construction phases. Two EPICS courses are mandatory for all Mines students—EPICS 151, the freshman-level course, and EPICS 251, intended for sophomores.
“The practice that a student gets in EPICS classes dealing with real clients and great teammates is important,” says sophomore Garrett Waltsak. “I never realized that I needed to practice working with others and letting my own agenda go. Now I know that I need to learn more before I can reach my full potential, so I’m glad I’ve got a running start.”
Waltask was one of two EPICS teams to work on the water-purification project. The idea came from Mines alumnus Bob Hedlund ’75, who has spent most of the last decade in Uzbekistan as the head of Joint Development Associates International (JDA), a humanitarian-aid organization that promotes infrastructure development. Hedlund wanted a system that could purify 100 gallons of water a day and could be built with materials readily available to Uzbek villagers.
The challenge immediately appealed to EPICS department chair, Robert Knecht. While he takes on projects from clients as diverse as private-sector manufacturers, scientific research labs and government agencies, Knecht has a particular fondness for assignments in faraway places. One EPICS class designed flood-resistant housing for a Vietnamese village. Another came up with ways to generate electricity for an Alaskan vacation resort. And every summer, EPICS department chair Robert Knecht leads a team of students to St. Kitt’s, a Caribbean island nation. Over the years they have devised a water-treatment system for the state hospital, a sewage channel for the penitentiary, soil erosion-control programs, hiking trails and other amenities.
“EPICS gives the students a feel for what it’s really going to be like when they get out into the workforce,” says Knecht. “Working on teams is almost a given for any company they go to work for. We give them some practice working with others and some training and procedures to help them when they run into problems working in groups.”
Knecht presented Bob Hedlund’s project to an EPICS 151 class in the spring of 2006. In the spring of 2007, the EPICS 251 team revisited the assignment and refined some of the ideas that had been developed the preceding year.
The final design falls into the category of solar water disinfection, or SODIS. This sustainable, affordable technology has saved thousands of lives among populations that lack a safe, reliable water supply. The students devised a system that relies on gravity to take water in—that is, the device must be positioned on a slope near a natural stream. Water flows into the unit, and bottlenecks back up in a series of collection chambers. Tin-foil solar traps and Fresnel lenses focus the sun’s rays on the collection chambers, producing the heat that purifies the water.
“They figured out that putting some dams in there to stop the water would increase the holding and heating time,” says Knecht. “That’s a great observation for second-year students.”
“The water must remain at 50 degrees Celcius for at least one hour in order to kill biological pathogens such as viruses, spores, cysts and worm eggs, chloroform and other bacteria colonies,” explains Garrett Waltsak. “A temperature logger takes readings every few minutes. If we want to be extremely accurate, we can use an Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) bioindicator.” (A device that tests for the presence of ATP, a universal energy-transferring molecule present in all living organisms.)
Coaching students to develop their communications skills is a core component of EPICS, which makes Hedlund’s SODIS project particularly appropriate. “They’re going to be working with a team in another part of the world, so they’ll need to provide good graphics and written instructions on how to build this thing and how to run it. They’re likely to be dealing with people who are not as technically skilled,” says Knecht.
They tested the SODIS unit on Clear Creek water, sending before-and-after samples to one of Mines’ environmental labs. The tests were encouraging enough that Knecht entered the design in the Mondialogo competition, a UNESCO-sponsored international design contest.
“Working out a good design process is never easy,” says Philip Wolfram, a member of the EPICS 151 team that tackled the SODIS project in the spring of 2006. “We learned the importance of critically evaluating all ideas, no matter how far-fetched or crazy, since considering all ideas and distilling their most salient elements enabled us to work together without conflict. We fought to ensure that only the best ideas were incorporated into our design. Will our design be able to provide larger-scale water purification for developing countries? We hope so.”
And it may. Knecht is currently working with a team of students at the University of Kabul who plan to use the teams’ design specifications to build a purification system this fall. Depending on how it performs, Hedlund may see the product through to production.