Abu Dhabi: Three students at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) have developed an innovative water filtering system that has the potential to save countless lives around the world.
According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1.5 billion people around the world are adversely affected by unclean water, with one child dying every 90 seconds as a result. With these harrowing numbers, the issue of developing filtering and sanitation systems for clean drinking water has become a key concern for governments and humanitarian organisations around the world.
The three engineering students — Nkosikhona Msimanga, Eder Munyampenda, and Abdullah Mohammad — came up with the idea of developing their water filter after visiting the village of Rema in Ethiopia and witnessing first-hand how people would resort to drinking water that was not safe for consumption.
“During senior year, all students have to come up with a capstone project. We are given a whole list of projects to choose from, and one of them happened to be designing a water filter. We were motivated to choose this project because of a trip to a remote village in Ethiopia where the villagers did not have access to any filtration systems,” said Msimanga.
According to Msimanga, at the heart of the idea is the natural working system of plants — the xylem. Plants have two different types of transport tissue — xylem that transports water and solutes from the roots to the leaves of xylem and phloem that transports nutrients to different parts of the plant.
“Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a research paper that said you can you use the material from the branch of a tree — you cut off the branch, peel off the bulk of it and what you are left with is the xylem,” explained Msimanga. “These vessels are also connected to one another through nano-pores, basically very small holes. The holes are so small that bacteria cannot pass through them, so only pure water gets filtered out,” he added.
With the research findings of MIT, the team of NYUAD students did what engineers do best, they came up with a design plan to incorporate the xylem into an actual water filter system.
“Our task as engineers was to come up with a design to use one in which we could actually put the xylem to use, and one that would be very easy and simple to use by anyone,” Msimanga said.
“While we were in Ethiopia, we saw that the villagers were using jerrycans to transport fuel, so we decided that instead of creating a completely new holding tank or bottle, we would use the jerrycans.
“We came up with a two-piece design. One is a piece that is permanently attached to the jerrycan, and the other piece carries the xylum. There were a lot of challenges to get this right — like getting the correct size to attach, and making sure the water did not leak. In the end, we got it right and used 3D printing for the attached materials,” he added.
Abdullah Mohammad, speaking on the challenges they faced, said the complications allowed them to innovate.
“We never expected that sealing the device would present such a big issue. The simple looking things generally require the most amount of work,” he said.
“It would have been easier for us to get carried away with expensive components that could have solved all our problems but we stuck within the cost constraints we set for ourselves. This meant that we had to think beyond what already existed and innovate,” Mohammed added.
With the water filter now designed and complete, the team is currently getting it patented, and hopes to have it out sometime next year after further tests. They are confident that it will lead to a positive impact.
“This product we have developed uses a natural resource and can be used on a practical scale everyday. A lot of resources are devoted to getting filtration systems in rural and isolated places and this costs a lot of money, but with this water filter, you can use the material from a tree and reduce costs,” said Munyampenda.
“Once people have this water filter, it will provide them access to clean water,” he added.
“My passion and hope for this product is for it to impact people’s lives and help to reduce child mortality in developing countries. I look forward to further developments of the filter.” — Nkosikhona Msimanga, 23, Zimbabwe
“I’m big on sustainable energy, it is something I want devote myself to in the future, using the world’s natural resources to better people in rural areas and developing nations. I have always been passionate about it.” — Eder Munyampenda, 23, Rwanda/Canada
“I hope to see a world where everyone has access to clean water. While this goal may seem very ambitious, it is not unachievable. Our project cannot achieve this goal on its own but together with like-minded efforts of other initiatives, such a world can exist.” — Abdullah Mohammad, 21, South Africa
Water security the goal
“Our goal is to reach any community that does not have access to clean drinking water, so it doesn’t matter where in the world this might be, we want to make sure that this is marketable and expandable to anyplace,” said Munyampenda. “Water security is a global concern. Fresh water resources, especially, are finite, and this issue is one of the biggest impediments for development around the world. If we can tackle this problem for developing nations, it can be a boost for their progress,” he added.
Sharing the same sentiments, Mohammad said that helping with water security was a pressing issue for him.
“Around 30,000 children die each day from contaminated water. As part of our trip to Ethiopia, we lived in Rema village for about a week and saw first-hand the struggles the villagers were facing. Living among the villagers, we were able to gain an understanding of the problems they faced from their own perspective.
“I have always been passionate about water security. It made my final university year and final project which many students often dread (but became) an enjoyable experience and something to be looked forward to,” he added.