OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Student-Built Stills Can Create Clean Water

11/28/2006

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As part of a national design competition, mechanical engineering students at Oregon State University have designed and built stills to purify water using only human mechanical power.

They will demonstrate their prototypes this Thursday, Nov. 30, beginning at 7 p.m. in the atrium of the Kelley Engineering Center. The event is free and open to the public, and all ages of students are welcome, especially students in grades K-12 and their families.

This year’s design challenge was inspired in part by the lack of potable water available in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Thousands of residents were stranded on rooftops surrounded by vast amounts of water, but the water was unfit to drink because it was either brackish or contaminated by biological and chemical pollutants. Had these people had access to human powered stills, which heat polluted water to boiling and then condense the steam, they could have produced their own clean drinking water.

Approximately 24 OSU student teams will demonstrate their inventions, which must be portable, easily assembled, and operate using energy input provided only by mechanical means driven by human effort. Designs can include pedal systems, linkages, lever systems, cranks, treadmills and other systems.

“This project is an excellent example of how we teach students to apply engineering theory to real-world problems to improve life through creative design and teamwork,” said Ping Ge, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at OSU. “This is an entirely new engineering concept, so students have to come up with original design solutions. In doing so, they learn about the engineering design process, including experiencing failures as well as successes.”

Students also gain first-hand experience in teamwork, communication and project management because they must work within tight timelines and budgetary constraints, Ge said.

Each year the American Society of Mechanical Engineers extends a design challenge and OSU incorporates the challenge as a part of an introductory design class. The team that demonstrates the best design at the OSU event can move on to the regional and possibly international design competitions.

Last year, OSU students designed and built breath-controlled fishing rod devices that could be used by people with limited or no use of their arms.

“Applications for the technology behind a human-powered still are far-ranging,” Ge said. “It could potentially bring safe drinking water to millions of people worldwide who have limited access to potable water, and it could also be used in emergency situations.”

Because this is a new engineering concept, some of the prototypes demonstrated at the campus competition will function better than others, Ge said. Teams will be scored based on the how well the distillation process works and how well designs comply with the posted requirements and constraints.