Engineering for Life: Ethan Butler

Major: Chemical Engineering

Ethan has felt the need to reach out to and help others throughout his college career.  He is currently president of the UConn chapter of Engineers Without Borders and is an intern with the UConn Office of Environmental Policy.  Thus, it was natural for him to extend this inclination for service to his University Scholar project.  Ethiopia, like much of the developing world, is facing a catastrophic water shortage.  So, Ethan’s project focuses on creating a water filtration system that can be set up in rural communities in Ethiopia.  Processes commonly available for water filtration – including sand filtration, chlorination, sedimentation, and reverse osmosis (used in desalination) – all require specific chemicals and large amounts of energy that are simply unavailable in rural Ethiopia.  Ethan’s project involves the development of a mobile, inexpensive, yet efficient, system that would instead use forward osmosis to filter the water.

Forward osmosis is, in essence, the opposite of reverse osmosis.  Forward osmosis uses osmotic pressure to pull water through the membrane.  Osmotic pressure results when any two mixtures with different concentrations of some dissolved substance are placed on opposite sides of a semi-permeable membrane.  Due to principles of diffusion, the concentrations of the solutes in both mixtures will tend toward equilibrium.  But, since only water can traverse the semi-permeable membrane, it is water that will be transferred between the two solutions to make the concentrations equal.  Osmotic pressure can be harnessed in a forward osmosis filtration system by placing a draw solution, with a high concentration of sugar or electrolytes, on one side of the membrane and a feed solution, the “dirty” water, on the other.  Because the concentration of solutes is so much higher in the draw solution, osmotic pressure pulls the feed solution through the membrane to the draw solution.  Then, what remains is a concentrated feed solution and a draw solution that contains water and dissolved, edible solutes, which can then be used for both hydration and nutrition.  Ethan will be testing an existing forward osmosis system created by Hydration Technology Innovation and assessing its durability in the harsh environment of Ethiopia, its ability to effectively filter out heavy metals and prevalent contaminants, and the ease with which it can be implemented sustainably in Ethiopia.

Ethan is supported in his endeavor by a committee that includes Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon of Chemical Engineering and the Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering, Dr. Carol Atkinson-Palombo of Geography, and Dr. Mekonnen Gebremichael of Civil & Environmental Engineering.  After completing his studies at UConn, he looks forward to getting a Ph.D. in environmental or chemical engineering and continuing to find ways to alleviate problems of people around the world.