Worldwide, more than 780 million people lack access to potable drinking water and 2.5 billion live without proper sanitation. A team of Penn State graduate students are addressing this global health crisis with interdisciplinary solutions and innovative technologies.
In December 2012, Roland Cusick of civil and environmental engineering, Marta Hatzell of mechanical and nuclear engineering and Michael Parks and Emily Smith-Greenaway of sociology proposed a simple solution for disinfecting wastewater to make it fit for drinking.
The team won the grand prize of $10,000 through the Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) at Penn State sponsored by the Dow Chemical Company.
This photo of the microbial fuel cell shows the cathode and anode that create hydrogen peroxide to disinfect wastewater. Image: Penn State
The proposed technology is based on a microbial fuel cell (MFC) design. The cells process wastewater and generate an electrical current. Natural bacteria consume biodegradable material and electrons flow into a conductive surface (anode). Electrons flow out of the anode, through an external circuit and into a cathode where oxygen typically reacts to form water (H2O). The team’s winning design efficiently converts electricity recovered from the anode into hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) instead of water in a separate chamber. The hydrogen peroxide can then be used to disinfect wastewater.
The team hopes to use the technology to improve drinking water and sanitation in Africa and to help local communities become more healthy and sustainable. Dow’s SISCA program is designed precisely to promote this type of forward thinking in social and environmental responsibility. “If the world’s greatest challenges were easy to solve, they would already be solved,” said Neil Hawkins, vice president of global EH&S and sustainability at Dow.
Penn State’s winning team is now leveraging their prize money to continue research efforts and develop their proposed technology. The graduate student team has partnered with the Learning Factory’s Capstone Design Program within the College of Engineering to sponsor a team of undergraduate engineering students. The Learning Factory student team is now developing the technology through a pilot project at Penn State’s wastewater treatment plant.
“[Our] mission is to help bring the real-world into the classroom by providing engineering students with practical, hands-on experience through industry-sponsored and client-based capstone design projects,” said Mary Frecker, director of the Learning Factory. “The award-winning graduate student team is serving as the industrial client in this particular capstone project. This is a unique, immersive learning opportunity for both the graduate and undergraduate student teams.”
Through the pilot at the wastewater treatment plant, the Learning Factory students will work to develop the concept into a physical piece of affordable hardware. Undergraduates James McMullen, Harrison Askew, Alec Rishell and Zachary Ryding and Brenden Hunter are all part of the development team. The implementation of this technology in developing regions could create a paradigm in which wastewater is considered a valuable resource rather than an environmental burden, potentially changing institutional incentives associated with wastewater and its treatment.
However, the Learning Factory student team working with the pilot project at Penn State are likely to encounter challenges unlike those that would be experienced in the developing world. “Penn state has a different type of waste stream,” said Cusick. “It is diluted with shower and kitchen sink water (or gray water), whereas in the developing world the waste stream would mostly be raw sewage.”
Despite these challenges, disinfecting wastewater into potable water is only one aspect of the proposed device. “What we hope the students will do is build a simple fuel cell using only cheap materials that spontaneously generates electricity from wastewater,” Cusick said. “The system could eventually provide residents of poor urban communities with cooking fuel, renewable electricity, sanitized fertilizer and disinfected drinking water.”
The produced electricity will allow residents of poor communities to charge other technologies such as flashlights and cellphones. “The real challenge for the students will be addressing cost, developing the flow-through system, demonstrating electricity production, and eventually looking at power storage capabilities,” Cusick explained.
The capstone design project at Penn State will also give the award-winning student team the opportunity to gather baseline information and better project the potential benefits of the technology within communities in Africa. Using a portion of the award money from SISCA and outside funding, the team will send two of its members to Nairobi, Kenya, in October to the International Water Association Development Congress & Exhibition conference to establish partnerships for implementing the technology. The team has high hopes that attending this conference and the research being accomplished by the Learning Factory will lead to actual implementation of the technology in poor urban neighborhoods in Africa.
The team will take a community-driven approach during implementation. In addition to using sociological theory, demographic techniques and methodologies at all stages to influence the success of the intervention, the team will ensure that local community is engaged in the establishment and construction of a community center that would house the technology. “Projects like these have failed in the past when local communities were not appropriately incorporated,” Parks said. “This community-driven approach has implications beyond just the usage, regulation and maintenance of the technology, as it has potential to contribute to the social sustainability of the local community.”
The award-winning student team expressed many thanks to Dow Chemical and Penn State for the opportunity to realize their ideas through the SISCA program. “Successful sustainable development efforts geared toward addressing global challenges, such as providing the growing urban areas of the developing world with sustainable access to sanitation and drinking water, require both interdisciplinary action and knowledge,” Parks explained. Cusick added, “The competition provided incentive for us to seek out students from other departments, learn from each other, and think critically about how to make an idea translate into a useful product or tool for a developing world. Penn State has such a wealth of interdisciplinary knowledge, but we’re all so isolated in our departments. Dow provided the monetary incentive to reach out to each other and learn from each other.”
The SISCA program now has 17 participating universities across the globe providing students, like the Penn State team, with opportunities to apply creativity and innovation to various sustainability challenges. “That’s why it’s so important that we have collaboration,” stressed Dow’s Hawkins. “Bringing together the best thinking across the board and the University community, especially the students, is incredibly important. It spurs the creation of new, unusual ideas and approaches to solving these challenges.”