Human Powered Water Purifier

Do you have a great idea on how to deliver clean water to disaster victims? If so, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) needs your input. ASME recently put together an ‘open source’ community to design a human-powered water purification system. The goal of the project is straightforward; the team wants to develop a device that provides potable water without relying on an electrical hookup. Such a device has many potential uses ranging from use in the developing world to use after a disaster when utilities and sanitary services have been interrupted. More….

Human Powered Water Purifier

Do you have a great idea on how to deliver clean water to disaster victims? If so, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) needs your input. ASME recently put together an ‘open source’ community to design a human-powered water purification system. The goal of the project is straightforward; the team wants to develop a device that provides potable water without relying on an electrical hookup. Such a device has many potential uses ranging from use in the developing world to use after a disaster when utilities and sanitary services have been interrupted.

Great Ideas from Students

The project grew out of a 2007 ASME student competition focused on the design challenges of a human-powered still (boiler) to distill potable water after a hurricane or other natural disaster. The 2007 project asked student teams to design and build a unit that could boil polluted or otherwise undrinkable water then condense the steam to provide drinking water. The competition focused on creating the lightest possible, human-powered boiler and condenser system; ultimately the 2007 competition was so well received that a desire to build a usable system grew from the students’ efforts. David Soukup, Managing Director for Centers at ASME said, “This is really a new venture for us. We saw a number of interesting designs [at the 2007 competition] and we wanted to pull the best from them.”

Individuals that became finalists during that competition were invited to apply to become part of what is the current design team. Ultimately, ASME selected five student team members and two faculty from the Western Kentucky University who will serve as project managers. The student team consists of William Hagen (University of Miami), José La Verde (Lunds University in Skane, Sweden), Javier Lopez (Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, Venezuela), Zach Pearl (Western Kentucky University), and Ken Ruble (New Mexico State University). Kevin Schmaltz and Robert Choate will serve as the project managers and faculty advisors; both are professors at Western Kentucky University. This group organized and initiated the online, open source community to further refine the team’s goals. Soukup said that the team has been holding weekly web conferences where the students share their research and design ideas.

One of the team’s important decisions was deciding on the real scope of the project. Soukup told H2Bid that the team’s objective is a “compact, easy-to-transport water purifier that would be able to provide a family of four with drinking water for 2 weeks.” He went on to say that rather than rely solely on human power to distill water, the team is leaning toward a mostly-human-powered device that takes advantage of solar energy and uses filtration in addition to heating the water.

Online Collaboration Powering the Effort

“One of the trends we see in the engineering field is collaboration, particularly online collaborations. ASME can provide the vehicle to show the value of collaboration for this kind of work,” said David Soukup. Interestingly enough, ASME didn’t restrict the collaboration on this project to the design team or even to the broader engineering community; instead the collaboration is truly open to all who want to participate. By opening the design guidance to any internet user, the team felt that they would be getting the best input for their design. Some of the early discussion in the online community was focused on fundamental questions such as: What pollutants should be considered? Should the device remove both biological and toxicological pollutants? How clean is ‘clean enough’? What sorts of environments will be host to these devices? These types of questions were fundamental in helping the team to refine the scope of the project.

The design team is continuing to use the online community’s input to develop and refine their design direction. Taking the community input into account, the design team will design a fully-functional water purification system. Beyond just a concept on paper, the team will assemble and test the device in mid-May at Western Kentucky University. The team hopes to show that the use of community collaboration can result in faster development times and a more complete understanding of potential problems or issues that may affect the success of the design. Additionally, the team hopes to finish with a device that works well in as many situations and environments as are practically possible.

The team has high hopes for where the project might go after the prototype has been built and tested. “We are open to what the next step might be,” said Soukup. He went on to add that ASME is eager to hear from the industry about any potential “ideas or opportunities for further collaboration.” There is a good chance that the device will be almost immediately useful in a variety of situations around the world. H2Bid will continue to follow the design teams’ efforts and will report on the outcome of the project in late May after the testing is complete.
To provide input or to participate in the online community aimed at developing the water purifier, browse to http://www.asme.org/Communities/Open_Source_Design.cfm Directions on the page instruct the user on how to apply for an account and join the open source design community.