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Water Purification Device And USF Student Proving Themselves In The Field

For USF graduate research assistant Robert Bair, work he normally does in the laboratory isn’t as easy when he’s out in the field. And in this case, we literally mean a field in India.

"So a lot of things happen that you wouldn’t expect in a lab - a few weeks ago we had a few coconuts from a tree fall onto our data logger, and of course, not a lot of damage was done, but it wasn’t something we expected," he said recently via Skype. "And we had to rearrange the site configuration just so that wouldn’t happen again so we could prevent further damage."

The civil and environmental engineering graduate student has been working since last December in Trivandrum (also known as Thiruvananthapuram), the capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala.

He’s there working with what is called the NEWgenerator – a water purifier that’s getting a lot of attention from the residents of the fishing village where it’s been set up.

Credit Robert Bair / USF College of Engineering
USF College of Engineering
A crowd gathers around the NEWgenerator, which has been set up at a school in a fishing village in Trivandrum, the capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala.

"Every time that I’m there troubleshooting, we’re opening the device, I always have a crowd of at least 15 to 20 people out there, always looking to see what’s going on," Bair said.  "It’s really fun to see that what I’m doing in the community has a lot of interest by the community members themselves."

"The “NEW” in NEWgenerator stands for nutrients, energy and water," said USF Associate Professor of Engineering Daniel Yeh, Bair’s advisor and the inventor of the device. "So what we have created is a device that can harvest the nutrients, energy and water from waste, stuff that society discards."

University Beat first introduced you to the NEWgenerator last year, shortly before it made the nearly 10,000-mile trip from Tampa to India. Yeh, who is stationed back at the USF campus, explained that the patented machine recycles water through a combination of biotechnology and a membrane separation system.

"So with the membrane, we’re able to separate out the contaminants from the water and recover very clean water from this waste water," Yeh said.

That clean water can then be used in a variety of ways.

"We are using it that for toilet flushing and also irrigation," Yeh said. "But if there’s a need for us to convert that to drinking water, we can do that. It’s a matter of optimizing the system and also the economics."

Credit Daniel Yeh / USF College of Engineering
USF College of Engineering
Bair works on the NEWgenerator, which is working in conjunction with an eToilet (right), India's first electronic public toilet.

For now, it’s at work next to a school, where Bair is observing it as it works in conjunction with a pair of eToilets, India’s first electronic public toilet.

"That’s our primary purpose is to constantly recycle the water for the eToilet to use and also treat the wastewater that’s generated by the eToilet," Bair said.

While Bair is out in the field, he isn’t totally isolated from home: he’s in regular contact with Yeh and his fellow USF research assistants via Skype and email, receiving news from home and advice on troubleshooting the generator.

"We kind of joke that he’s sort of like a Martian astronaut – that he’s there on Mars and back at Mission Control, we’re supporting his efforts and giving him what he needs to do the field testing," Yeh said.

Yeh adds that the team is already looking at other places where the NEWgenerator can help, such as at the sites of natural disasters like earthquakes.

"People think about bringing water to these communities but sanitation’s often an afterthought, and as a result, you get these secondary waves of disease outbreak," Yeh said. "Our vision is that we’ll be able to deploy these units around the world within a very short period after a disaster and then be able to plug these units in and offer sanitation protection to the people who need it."

Credit Daniel Yeh / USF College of Engineering
USF College of Engineering
Bair and fellow USF student Jorge Luis (right) talk to a child at the school in Trivandrum.

In the developmental stage, the project drew widespread interest, receiving $350,000 in backing from the country of India, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Cade Museum in Gainesville.

With the success in the field testing, Yeh said that buzz continues to grow – and with it, the possibility of turning the NEWgenerator into a mass-produced, marketable product.

"We’re in conversation with a number of people about doing this, so we would like to manufacture more of the NEWgenerators and scale this up and this is going to happen very quickly because there’s a lot of interest that we’re drawing," Yeh said.

Bair returned to Tampa in June to present his PhD dissertation on the NEWgenerator. It was a quick visit, as he returned to India to continue observing and fine-tuning the machine until the end of the year. 

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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