Rural Water Purification is “Going Green” with Help from JBU

Siloam Springs, Ark. (November 30, 2007) — Cloudy, murky, rank-smelling water. Most Americans would think twice before taking a swig of it, preferring instead a $3 water that comes in a plastic bottle. The people living in remote villages of Central America don’t have the luxury of bottled water, they have to drink the water that they can get, even if it’s cloudy, murky and perhaps a bit rank. Sometimes the water issue is much more subtle. Everything looks and smells just fine, but pathogenic bacteria create severe health issues. With the help of a $10,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the faculty and students at John Brown University are working to improve the drinking water options for the people in these Central American villages. Providing enough clean drinking water for the population of rural villages is the heart beat of JBU’s newest research project: the Slow-Sand Water Filtration project. The goal of the project headed by Drs. Larry Bland, assistant professor of Engineering, and Young-Gurl Kim, professor of Engineering, is to develop a natural process of water purification on a large scale that can be available and sustainable in a rural setting without the use of chemicals. “The Slow-Sand Water Filtration system addresses the major issue of water quality and quantity by purifying water through a sand and algae filter so that water is safe to consume in remote villages,” said Dr. Kim. The Slow-Sand Water Filtration system uses gravity to pull water through layers of sand in which purifying algae grows. The algae and sand filter various sediments and bacteria, which are harmful to humans, out of the water. The mineral sediment that remains can act as a fertilizer to the algae. The algae will grow as an organic filter. This filter can grow to the extent of actually clogging the sand filter. Managing the growth rate of the algae is a primary challenge JBU researchers are going to tackle over the next few months. Researchers will build a test filter system on campus, simulating the environmental conditions of rural Santa Cruz, Baja Verapaz, Guatemala. Students will be able to monitor and track algae growth to discover how long the system can work before the algae begins to cause problems instead of solutions. With that information, students and faculty expect to develop ways to efficiently remove excess algae from the filtration system to prolong the systems effectiveness. As a second challenge the researchers will look at augmentation systems such as ultraviolet light and aerobic oxygen to supplement and enhance the system. Currently there are small, personal water filtration systems that can be used, however it is not large enough to support a village community. Community level systems are often very large and more expensive than most poor communities can afford. The EPA grant provides research funds to help improve the sand-based water purification system that is currently used around the world. Students will use basic principles to develop a more efficient purification system using resources that are natural to Central American regions. In addition to improving the purification process and increasing water supply, researchers hope to discover a use for the rich, excess algae removed from the system. If successful, the algae byproduct produced in a water system could become a new natural resource for economic gain and could fuel the development micro-enterprise businesses in the village. An idea that has been proposed is to use the byproduct as a fertilizer for organic farming or cooking fuel. This application would have a very natural integration into a community already highly involved in farming. JBU’s research team recently returned from a trip to Santa Cruz, Guatemala where they observed how the community obtains water, where water is stored, how people access the water and what technologies and materials are readily available. “We want the students to not only gain research related to the water filtration, but a better understanding and perspective of the people and village,” Dr. Bland, said. Once research and development is complete, JBU students will travel to Washington, D.C. to show their findings to a panel of judges from the EPA, academia and the industry. They will be judged on their work and if they make it into the final round of competition, they will be awarded funds to implement their system in the real-world environment of Santa Cruz. JBU hopes to acquire the funding needed for the installation by May 2008. “The greatest joy would be to watch the people of Santa Cruz be able to use and drink clean water,” Dr. Bland, said. “Pure water seems like a simple thing, but it can change lives and provide a better future; that is what makes all of the research worthwhile.” John Brown University is a private Christian university, ranked fourth by U.S. News & World Report in the Southern Region. JBU enrolls more than 2,000 students from 40 states and 45 countries. JBU is a member of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities and the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.

JBU would like to thank Dataq for contributing PC-based data logger and data acquisition hardware and software to our EPA project.