Student engineers work to provide safe water in Mexico

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A. Sue Weisler

In the foreground, Matt Switzer, left, updates professors John Waud and Sarah Brownell on the modifications his senior design team made to a UV water-treatment system used in Mexico. In the background, Phil Floroff, left, Evan Hall, center, and Tyler Josselyn unpack the circuit board that will operate the system.

Improving the safety of drinking water for people in Chiapas, Mexico, has tapped the imagination of a group of engineering students and professors in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering and the College of Science.

Electrical engineers Phil Floroff and Evan Hall worked with mechanical engineers Tyler Josselyn and Matt Switzer on a senior design project to improve water-treatment kiosks for the Fundación Cántaro Azul (Blue Jug Foundation), a nonprofit organization that installs ultraviolet water-treatment systems in underserved Mexican villages. The RIT students were tasked with finding a way to shut down the water flow during power outages to prevent contamination of the clean-water tank.

The Blue Jug Foundation’s design is based on a system developed by students at the University of California at Berkeley that uses ultraviolet radiation to prevent pathogens from reproducing. RIT adjunct professor Sarah Brownell ’98 (mechanical engineering) and Fermin Reyegadas, co-founder of the Blue Jug Foundation, met as Berkeley graduate students working on the project.

Brownell is now a project guide and a mentor to multidisciplinary teams of RIT engineering students. She seeks design problems that highlight the needs of developing countries and reached out to Reyegadas for ideas beneficial to his foundation.

The resulting project challenged Floroff and Hall to design a circuit board to sense a power outage or a failing UV light bulb. The sensor signals the safety system Josselyn and Switzer created to turn off the gravity-fed system. The sensor also sets off an alarm and a pulsing LED light to alert the operator.

The design modifications can be retrofitted into existing kiosks, such as the one RIT environmental science professor John Waud helped install last year in the Chiapas village of Nueva Flor, located part way up the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountains.

Waud knows first hand about the cost of clean water in the region bordering Guatemala.

He and his wife, Doris, have spent part of every summer for the last 12 years conducting conservation work in Chiapas and lived there from 2004 to 2005. When Waud approached Brownell about doing UV water-treatment work in Chiapas, Mexico, she referred him to the Blue Jug Foundation.

Last June, Waud and Rev. Jack Heister, from Christ Clarion Presbyterian Church, traveled to Nueva Flor. They worked with the National Commission on Protected Natural Areas and the Blue Jug Foundation to install a UV water-treatment system and to train the residents to operate and maintain it.

Christ Clarion Presbyterian Church paid for the installation of the $6,000 unit that disinfects five liters of water per minute, serves approximately 500 people and provides a reliable source of water during emergencies. The community kiosk gives the people in Neuva Flor an alternative to purchasing expensive bottled water.

“They were paying 19 pesos, or $1.50 to $2 for 19 liters,” Waud says. “That price has gone down to 5 pesos, and that gives the community a little money they are taking off the top to put aside for schools and health care. It becomes really significant in a world where $5 a day is a typical wage.”

The Wauds will return to Chiapas in July to continue their conservation work and their efforts to make affordable drinking water available in the region.

“We have received some funding and are preparing additional requests,” Waud says. “We expect to install approximately five systems over the next three years in the same general area of Chiapas. So far, we have funding from Rush-Henrietta Rotary Club and from Christ Clarion Presbyterian Church.”