Students Work to Reduce Arsenic Poisoning in Bangladesh

PART I: THE OVERVIEW

This article is the first in a series that will follow the progress of a capstone senior design project.

By Kat J. McAlpine

In the 1970’s, the World Health Organization (WHO) brought international attention to the microbial contamination of Bangladesh’s ground water, which was a causal factor in widespread mortality and disease among the country’s population. In response, over 4 million tube wells were installed across Bangladesh over the next decade. Over the same period of time, infant mortality decreased by almost half. Subsequently, the tube wells were celebrated as the welcome solution to the nation’s drinking water crisis.

Then, in 1993, samples of water taken from tube wells and ground water sources revealed the presence of high arsenic levels. Today, arsenic levels in the country’s water supply can be as high as 150 times the amount WHO recommends as safe. In 2002, WHO announced to the world that the “largest mass poisoning of a population in history is now underway in Bangladesh.” In 2010, the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of the U.S. Department of Energy predicted arsenic poisoning will cause for about 10% of future adult deaths in Bangladesh.

It is currently estimated that out of the population of 162 million, up to 77 million Bangladeshis are drinking arsenic tainted water. The consequences of arsenic consumption can range from eye problems to skin lesions, cancers, cardiovascular diseases and neurological disorders. Furthermore, dangerous levels of additional contaminants such as salt, manganese, particulate matter, cyanobacteria and fecal coliforms have also been identified.

To combat the epidemic in Bangladesh, a group of UConn engineering seniors have taken on the charge of designing a portable water filtration system that will be affordable and effective. Daniel Milligan, Joshua Cocciardi, Brian Martins, Emily Cole, Brendan O’Grady and Cara Der are advised by a multi-disciplinary team of faculty and are working under sponsorship by Maks PacRim Renewable Energy, a company headquartered in Darien, CT.  Their faculty mentors are Marcelle Wood, a Mechanical Engineering lecturer and Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education & Diversity, Dr. Mehdi Anwar, professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering, and Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon, an assistant professor of Chemical Engineering.

The project challenge came to UConn through Maks PacRim Renewable Energy co-owner Henry Abbott, who has spent a cumulative 25 years living and traveling in Asia.  Mr. Abbott was first exposed to the water quality crisis in Bangladesh during a visit to the country in March of last year. While there, he was introduced to Nessar Khan, CEO of the Bangladesh-based company Maks Group. The two men struck up a camaraderie based on their mutual concern for the widespread water contamination. Stemming from that visit, a business partnership was forged and Maks PacRim Renewable Energy was born.

Throughout the fall 2010 semester, the UConn team met regularly with their company sponsor as they worked to outline the design requirements for a portable, self-powering filtration unit. Mechanical engineering students Daniel, Joshua and Brian will construct the power components and structural housing of the unit while chemical engineers Emily, Brendan and Cara will fabricate the pump and filtration system. Over the course of spring semester the students will continue to refine their design through the testing and analysis of a working prototype.

Maks Group has already provided customers in Bangladesh with large, very expensive solar irrigation pumps which provide water filtration for industry and agricultural irrigation. Consequently, the newly-formed company Maks PacRim now desires to manufacture a less expensive, smaller filtration system that can provide clean drinking water to Bangladeshi villages. According to Mr. Khan, “The need is so great that when this affordable filtration system becomes available it will be a breakthrough moment. Rapidly, the government will be able to provide many remote villages with a filtration system that supplies essential, clean drinking water.”

Please look for Part II in upcoming issues of eMaginations.

Published: March 3, 2011