Two members of the UConn chapter of Engineers Without Borders spent three weeks last May and June applying engineering principles to relief projects in the hill country of northern Thailand. Chapter president Robert Yau and former president Nathan Barlow, both Chemical Engineering seniors, engaged in a number of tasks intended to improve the lives of rural residents. Their work was carried out in association with a non-governmental organization, Upland Holistic Development Project (UHDP), which aims to help tribal people residing in Southeast Asia gain greater self sufficiency and sustainability.
EWB-USA is a non-profit humanitarian organization that partners with developing communities worldwide to improve their quality of life while also providing students and practicing engineers the experiences that foster a global outlook
When they arrived in Thailand in late spring 2008, Mssrs. Yau and Barlow first met with UHDP personnel and discussed alternative projects. They settled on three. Mr. Barlow commented that they were continually challenged to “maintain a balance between practicality and technicality in our projects. As engineers, we rely heavily on technology to produce the most efficient and useful effect. However, it’s impossible to rely heavily on electricity, the availability of materials and tools, and technical support in regions that lack a supporting infrastructure. We had to learn how to be flexible. For example, many of our designs were changed several times to accommodate for insufficient materials and tools.”
Their major project involved construction of a simple seed dehydrator. The climate of Thailand is often wet, speeding the decay of seeds before they can be planted. Before leaving for Thailand, Mr. Yau said they investigated alternative designs – which typically featured two chambers – and conceived their own design, which combined the two chambers into one unit/box, saving space, easing transport and saving material costs. When they arrived in Thailand and began construction of the dehydrator on-site, they found that some materials readily accessible in the U.S., such as Plexiglas®, were scarce in rural Thailand. The two improvised with a Saranâ„¢ wrap cover that, they found, produced temperatures of up to 120 degrees F. They tested the device on individual seeds and also local fruits, including mangos, bananas, papayas and the like. The two wrote a 20-page manual detailing the dehydrator’s construction and operation that also included photos of fruits tested in the device. The manual is expected to be published and distributed among villagers served by the NGO.
Another task involved the construction and testing of a simple biomass reactor from animal manure. Mr. Yau explained that they blended manure and water in a lidded barrel and left the brew to percolate for some days, during which bacteria fed on the manure and produced methane gas. “We performed small trials to determine which ratio of manure to water would produce the most methane gas and found that 100 percent methane with no water was the result” he explained. Capturing the methane in an old tire innertube, they transported the methane via a hollow tube to a stove. A villager could simply open a valve and light the methane to produce a flame and prepare meals. The apparatus has the advantages of easy assembly, plentiful “feedstock” in the way of manure, mobility and self sufficiency for villagers.
Mr. Yau said that he and Mr. Barlow also helped UHDP personnel construct a modified adobe building using clay and rice husks, which served as a binding agent. According to Mr. Yau, UHDP officials were interested in piloting a sample house in order to establish and develop sustainable solutions that would be friendly to the environment. Mr. Barlow commented, “The adobe house is a cheap alternative to building with cinder block. Although the adobe house is not as durable, it does provide cheap and quick shelter, and remains remarkably cool in the hot season.”
In addition to the Thailand project, Mr. Yau said the UConn chapter has targeted two other international locales for projects in the coming year: Nicaragua and Ethiopia. The focus in Nicaragua will be on first completing the pre-assessment tasks begun in November 2007 to stabilize a key access road – regularly washed out by torrential rains – which links an impoverished shantytown with the city of Granada. Read about that project here.
The chapter’s work in Ethiopia will continue research begun two years ago by chapter advisor Mekonnen Gebremichael, an assistant professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, aimed at accurately predicting rainfall in the Nile River Basin. Dr. Gebremichael’s work is detailed here.
The chapter enjoys a membership of about 25 students who regularly attend meetings, according to Mr. Yau. The officers include vice president Ethan Butler (Mechanical Engineering), treasurer Leslie Verissimo (Management & Engineering for Manufacturing), secretary Erin McKeon and fundraising committee chair Christina Natale – both Biomedical Engineering majors, and project management chair Matthew Gorecki (Computer Science & Engineering). For Mssrs. Yau and Barlow, both of whom plan to attend graduate school, the three-week experience in Thailand has strengthened their commitment to using their engineering skills to better the lives of others around the globe.
The team’s planned projects overseas can be carried out only with generous funding from charitable donations. To donate toward the UConn chapter of EWB, please contact Dr. Mekonnen Gebremichael at (860) 486-2771 or firstname.lastname@example.org.