AguaClara Purifies Water In Honduras Over Winter Break

Students implement sustainable water treatment plants that they designed themselves...


By Camille Wang via the Cornell Daily Sun, 2/13/13

At the end of winter break, AguaClara, an engineering project team focused on resolving global water problems, visited Honduras to observe water filtration plants. But these were not just any water plants –– these were gravity-powered, sustainable water treatment plants that the students had designed themselves.

“A lot of what we work on is directly applicable. The research we do is actually going to be integrated in the designs we use,” said Casey Garland grad, a member of AguaClara.

Conventional water treatment plants are very complicated, require tremendous amounts of electrical power and have high maintenance machinery –– all of which are impractical for resource-poor countries like Honduras, said Mary John ’15 a member of AguaClara.

The 14 research sub-teams of AguaClara focus on improving specific sections of the treatment plant, such as sedimentation or filtration. The basic cleansing process used by AguaClara is the same as that used in conventional plants, but the team modifies each step to accommodate the lack of electricity and funding in Honduras.

“You really have to design these plants with the people who are using it in mind,” John said.

According to AguaClara member Julia Morris ’13, one of the big differences between AguaClara’s plants and conventional plants is that AguaClara has plants that are entirely gravity-powered. The plants are built on the side of a hill, allowing water from streams and rivers to flow through the system via gravity. Eliminating the need for electricity greatly reduces the cost of running the plant. Thus, the community is more able to fund the construction of and maintain the plant.

The supplies used to build the water filtration plant are “locally available, so if something were to break, [the operators] would go to their local hardware store and fix it,” Morris said. The plant design in Honduras utilizes sand filters and pipes which are readily available instead of importing parts and valves.

The team set up each plant so that operators can see the water grow clearer with each step.

“I think it’s important to see what’s going on. If [the operators] can’t see that it’s working normally and the people are not getting clean water, the community is not going to want to pay to keep the plant going, and thus it’s going to fail and not be sustainable,” Garland said.

To judge the cleanliness of the water, AguaClara engineers use the standard unit of NTU, nephelometric turbidity units, to measure the turbidity, or haze of water. The lower the NTU, the cleaner the water.

Honduras standards require that water turbidity be under five NTU. AguaClara, however, aims for an NTU below one, which is the standard of the World Health Organization. The most recent plant cleans water to 0.01 NTU, which exceeds the United States standard, and NTU of 0.3.

One of the challenges AguaClara faces is that its current technology can only support medium-sized communities in Honduras. Smaller groups under 1,000 people do not need a full-sized plant, but the team must redesign its filtration system in order to accommodate such needs. By reworking its design, AguaClara can expand the number of communities it helps, Garland said.

Not only does the team seek to aid smaller communities, it also wants to expand its work to countries besides Honduras.

The “need for clean water is everywhere,” according to John. AguaClara is looking to implement its technology in India and central Africa.

“It’s so wonderful to be part of a team where I can apply what I learn in the classroom to real life things, and it’s a great way to reassure yourself you’re pursuing the right passions,” John said.

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