Auburn engineering students develop solar-powered water purifiers

AUBURN – Auburn University engineering students are preventing water-borne diseases in impoverished countries throughout the world with two portable water purifying systems they developed.

Grant Moore, a senior in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Business-Engineering-Technology classmates Lauren McManus, Grant Martin and Sara Yousey decided to develop the water purifiers for a class project that required them to create a business plan and model product.

They developed two products: one called the Advanced Liquid Purification System, or ALPS, and the other, the Salt and Light purifier. Both utilize chemical processes approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to eliminate viruses, bacteria and protozoa by dissolving a small amount of salt in water – or a pinch per pint. Electricity then passes through specially coated electrodes in the water, interacting with the dissolved salt to produce chlorine compounds that sanitize the water. More salt can be added to create a strong disinfectant.

“One advantage of this technology over other systems is that it is extremely simple, yet successful,” Moore said. “Chlorine tablets take four hours to kill Giardia, a hazardous type of protozoa, and the tablets don’t even touch Cryptosporidium, another type of protozoa. The ALPS system eliminates both from water quickly.”

Auburn’s Business-Engineering-Technology program offers engineering undergraduates a minor focused on business. Moore’s team felt water purification would be profitable in the recreational camping community as well as provide a humanitarian tool to the developing world.

“After many long hours and a lot of determination, the team created a completely functional water purifier, going far beyond what was expected,” Moore said. “Our research on world water issues was too compelling to ignore. We had to do something.”

With help from Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty member Tom Baginski, Moore and his classmates formed the nonprofit group Innovative Humanitarian Products Organization, or IHPO, in order to create more devices that will improve the lives of those in need.

A similar purifying technology was originally created for the U.S. military, but requires batteries. ALPS is powered by a hand-cranked generator, while Salt and Light is powered by solar cells.

“We didn’t want them to be battery-operated, because batteries are difficult to come by or are often not of good quality in developing countries,” he said.

Each system is optimized for its geographical area and costs $30 to $80. Bigger components can treat the water faster, but cost more to build.

Emile Ewing, a graduate student in Electrical and Computer Engineering and member of IHPO, is concentrating her master’s thesis on the real-world use of her group’s water purification systems. She traveled to Uganda for nine days last fall to field test the products and to teach local residents how to use the systems.

“In Uganda, there is an abundance of salt and light for the systems to work,” Ewing said. “The residents get it! They see the water start to bubble and they understand that it is working. It is important to show the products to as many people as possible to avoid skepticism and show that it is possible for them to use the systems themselves.”

Wood for boiling water in Uganda is scarce, she explains, so people have to spend several hours a day carting water back and forth and searching for firewood in order to treat their water.

Ewing also noted that she plans to make a picture book as part of her thesis to eliminate language barriers faced in teaching people how to use the water purifying systems.

“I love helping people, and I see value in a project like this,” she said. “We don’t think this is the end-all solution to the water issue, but this could be a great solution in a lot of situations.”

Photographs and a video segment are available on the Auburn University Office of Communications and Marketing website, http://ocm.auburn.edu/featured_story/water_purifier.html.

(Written by Morgan Stashick.)

Contact: Morgan Stashick, (334) 844-3591 (stashml@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)