Twice a day, at an all-girls high school dormitory in Eastern Uganda, a cook boils water for safe drinking over a smoky, open fire. Each 80-liter pot takes roughly an hour and multiple logs to boil. Around the world, a similar story plays out as people spend hours collecting firewood and disinfecting water in this dangerous, highly-polluted environment.

Despite the technological advances of the last century, more than one in 10 people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. Without proper treatment, water can carry pathogens that lead to diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and bacillary dysentery. Consequently, contaminated drinking water is responsible for the death of an estimated 1.5 million children every year.

Population growth, climate change, and population displacement are amplifying the need for better and safer large-scale water purification systems. To tackle the issue, a team of researchers at Oregon State University, led by Nordica MacCarty, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is partnering with InStove, a nonprofit organization based in Cottage Grove, Oregon. The group received the Impact Invention Award in 2017 from the Lemelson Foundation for their work.

The team has developed and tested a novel water purification product and is investigating ways to support its deployment. The InStove Water Purifier can produce 4,500 liters of safe drinking water per day — enough for 1,000 people — at a minimal cost to users and the environment. Although the water purifier can be used with any heat source,  when paired with an InStove cookstove, the fuel savings are substantial: one liter of potable water can be produced for a pencil’s weight of wood fuel. It’s the first solid fuel powered pasteurization system of its type.

“I have traveled to Africa many times, including 18 trips to refugee camps, observing  firsthand the desperate need for affordable, clean water technology,” said Fred Colgan, InStove’s founder. “We have been working on this program for years, and, with the help of Oregon State, we are about ready to deliver this innovative technology to the world.”

In August 2017, Oregon State researchers partnered with MAPLE Microdevelopment to test the water purifier at a high school dormitory in Mbale, Uganda. They evaluated its technical performance, user preferences, and appeal. Users found the product easy to use and it saved them time and money. The reduced emissions also meant less smoke in the users’ eyes and lungs.  When the pilot program ended, the school manager was sorry to see it go and plans to purchase the system once it is commercialized.

With some initial support from Venturewell (and a student entrepreneurial team), the next step is working with InStove and MAPLE Microdevelopment to build a sustainable business strategy. “The system design includes maintenance,” MacCarty said. “The key to a sustainable solution is finding out what works for the communities in the long term
and then helping local partners and entrepreneurs implement it successfully.”

In 2018, continued evaluation and implementation of the water purifier will be led by Grace Burleson, a dual master’s student in mechanical engineering and applied anthropology. “The InStove Water Purifier must be evaluated both technically and socially. We’re working with engineering, anthropology, and business faculty to look at the project holistically,” Burleson said.

Nick Moses, a graduate student and lead engineer for InStove, will head technology development and manufacturing for both water and clean cooking technologies.

The project is part of the Humanitarian Engineering program at Oregon State, which works to cultivate science and engineering-based solutions that fulfill basic human needs, enhance life quality, and advance the level of resilience in the local and
global community.

“We do that through an interdisciplinary approach, which we like to think of as engineering in context, where we look at technological solutions in light of surrounding social, economic, and environmental factors,” MacCarty said. “This type of research really teaches students about the broader impact of their work and provides opportunities to develop many of the multidisciplinary, entrepreneurial, and social and cultural competencies needed to be a successful engineer in the 21st century.”

By OWEN PERRY

Published Date: 
Thursday, April 12, 2018