“Agua Pura”- A Low Cost Solar Water Distiller

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October 26, 2009

It all started due to one startling statistic, that 98% of the water in Guatemala is contaminated.

That compelling statistic was one of many motivating statements derived from the research in Dr. Ken Pickar’s incredibly relevant Caltech class, “Product Design for the Developing World” otherwise known as ME-105. One of the many attributes of this unique course is that it brings together the talents of Caltech science and engineering students with design and art students from Art Center College of Design, and students from the Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala to create useful products for populations that make less than two dollars a day. I had had the honor of first meeting and working with Dr. Pickar in an entrepreneurially oriented class in 2001 and that class evolved into this extraordinary opportunity for our design students to interact with engineering students to address real world issues of social and humanitarian concern.

So it became totally relevant when Designmatters, under the direction of Mariana Amatullo, chose to support the work of one of the team projects, “Agua Pura,” who at the time were studying various cost effective ways to purify water. The students involved in this worthwhile project were Armie Pasa and Gabe La O’ from Art Center, and Amit Ghandi and Eric Johlin from Caltech, and I was the Faculty Advisor.

In August 2007, Armie and Gabe had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala to learn first-hand the needs of those living in rural areas. One of the issues faced by many Guatemalans is having access to pure and clean water especially in rural areas. According to the Guatemala Ministry of Health, “98 percent of the country’s water sources are contaminated with water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever, hepatitis A, cholera, giardia, and amebiasis. As a result, affected adults are absent from work or cannot be as productive, while children are unable to attend school and suffer from permanent developmental damage. Additional statistics show that 40 percent of Guatemala’s population has no access to clean water, and of the 331 municipalities in Guatemala, only 24 have drinking water treatment systems, and of these 24, only 15 systems are currently in operation.”

In 2008 Designmatters, on behalf of the Agua Pura-Art Center/Caltech collaboration, submitted a grant proposal to encourage water purification research to the World Water Forum. The World Water Forum is a joint venture of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, the U. S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation, the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, Water for People, Friends of the United Nations, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. Our Agua Pura project was awarded $9,800.00 to (as stated in the grant proposal) “…develop a solar water purifying system. This product will draw impure water into a treatment area where the sun’s heat will help evaporate the water through a sheet of glass. Next, the water vapor will condense on the glass, bead, and drip down into a clean water storage area. The purified water can then either be collected or routed into an indoor container.”

What transpired over approximately the next ten months was truly amazing as our four students, together with their Landivar University counterparts, took the most basic low-tech concepts, built prototypes, did field studies and tests, and refined the products. Most importantly they learned from each other. It was amazing to see them cross-pollinating, approaching challenges from differing points of view, and working out new ways to communicate and evolve their unique product. Along with the predictable learning of technical skills they learned life skills that they will carry forward into their careers.

On May 26, 2009 they presented their prototype at the World Water Forum along the grant recipients from seventeen other California colleges and universities. In attendance was Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano, 38th. District, who is Chair of the Water and Power Subcommittee for the 110th Congress and who continues to serve as Subcommittee Chairwoman in the current, 111th Congress. It was a proud day for our students as they demonstrated their product and delivered a slide presentation to the assembly. The general consensus was overwhelmingly positive and encouraged the team to take this concept to the next level, to scale up the output and to bring down the costs. And it became apparent that this product could be used in a myriad of locations where a scarcity of water is a growing concern including American Indian Reservations, National Parks, and in post-disaster situations where water is an especially precious commodity.

Without the solid foundation provided by Designmatters this valuable research might not have been done. Without the brain power and resources of the world class educational institutions and especially the direction and innovation of Dr. Pickar projects such as these might not have the environment to evolve. Without the backing of the World Water Forum an important contribution may have not been able to get to the next step. It is because of these unique institutions and people that very important questions, such as water purification, can continue to be addressed and a new generation of socially motivated, intelligent students can focus their energies to improving our human condition.

For more information about the conscientious work being done by the students in this class you may link to www.pddw.org.