Gulliver scientists help a village a world away

When Sara Fuenmayor, an eighth-grader at Gulliver Academy, was in a Nigerian village last summer, she was astounded at what she saw:

The village’s communal water supply was a large jug, refilled by kids who would skip school to trek miles to the river.

“It’s unfair that I can get water whenever I want and these kids have to work so hard to get it, then they don’t even get the best water,” Sara said.

Knowing high school students at Gulliver Preparatory School had a machine that could clean water, Sara set out to help.

Designed and built by senior engineering students over the past several years, the award-winning water purification system called LiTreS is now providing clean, bacteria-free water to a health clinic that serves villagers near Yola, Nigeria.

“The water purification system is very important to the community,” said Abdulmumini Abubakar, director of the clinic.

The three-bed facility operates mostly as a birthing center, where nurses use the machine for drinking water and washing newborns.

Alex Cobo, Sara’s father and project consultant at the American University of Nigeria, said access to safe water is a dire problem in the villages.

“There’s no clean water,” Cobo said. “Even in the city, there’s no aqueduct. Everyone just drills a borehole, and the whole water system is getting contaminated.”

A previous model of the LiTreS system was already functioning successfully at an orphanage in Haiti, but the Gulliver students were eager to improve and customize a unit for use in Nigeria.

The system has changed drastically since Gulliver students first began designing a solar-powered version in 2008. Housed in a hand-truck for portability, the latest model has a patent pending and requires no outside power source, utilizing a manual pump to send the water through three filters that eliminate sediment, pathogens and bacteria like E.coli.

LiTreS has garnered international recognition, winning the Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Challenge in March 2012. Students were invited to present the system at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference in Brazil and also received a Heart of Haiti Award.

With guidance from Claude Charron, chair of the engineering and biomedical department, students came in Saturdays or stayed after school to work on the system.

“It’s like 100 percent teamwork,” said Laura Vargas, a senior who did the biomedical testing of LiTreS. “Everyone puts their ideas together.”

Within months, a modified LiTreS unit was disassembled, placed in two suitcases, and sent with Cobo on a plane to Nigeria, despite a brief snafu with customs upon arrival.

“They wanted to see an invoice, but there was no invoice,” Cobo said. “Finally I said ‘This is the invoice,’ and I showed them a picture of all the students around the machine at Gulliver.”

At the clinic, a ceremony was held for village leaders to bless the machine and taste-test the water. Cobo said this was an essential step for establishing the villager’s trust and ensuring that they would continue to use the system.

“That is important for the people, because now they know that what we’re giving them is OK,” he said. “You can’t just show up with the thing, everyone has to look at it and approve it.”

Cobo stressed that the true challenge of implementing any new technology is cultural impact and acceptance by the villagers, who are nomads and whose practices are grounded in hundreds of years of tradition.

“The real challenge is that they have to change their customs and decide that clean water is a necessity,” he said.

Abubakar said that the system keeps people from drinking impure water, and that more systems would help reduce disease.

For Varga, the most rewarding part of working on the system was seeing the pictures of LiTreS being used in the clinic.

“Opening that email was the best thing ever,” she said. “I still have one of the pictures as my background. It was the most amazing feeling, seeing the impact you can have on those people.”

Cobo returns to the clinic occasionally for repairs and hopes to travel to other villages to address school supply shortages, clean water accessibility and sanitation. Sara and her mother are planning to return to teach women how to create homemade water filters.

Charron and the students are now focused on mass-producing the LiTreS system and providing upcoming seniors all the tools needed to continue improving and implementing the systems in developing nations around the world.

Discussions with Cobo also inspired the student’s most recent achievement, the Eco-Cooker, which is fueled by cattle bio-waste to address the issue of deforestation due to wood burning. It won the Spirit of Innovation Challenge in March, and students will use their $10,000 award to continue its development.

“There are two ways you can go about it,” Charron said. “You can feel sorry about everything that happens or you can do something about it.”

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