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Fighting for clean water

8/13/2013

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University of Michigan students fight off mosquitos, survive harrowing rides on dirt roads and live off rice and beans as they work to provide engineering solutions for clean drinking waters to rural communities in the midst of one of the largest wetlands in the world - Pantanal, Brazil.

University of Michigan students fight off mosquitos, survive harrowing rides on dirt roads and live off rice and beans as they work to provide engineering solutions for clean drinking waters to rural communities in the midst of one of the largest wetlands in the world - Pantanal, Brazil.

Brazilian primary school students take turns peering into a microscope at a drop of drinking water. They are surprised at what they see. Tiny protozoans are in the water. But even more surprising is what they can't see – bacteria. The type of bacteria that can lead to harmful diseases with symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, stomach ache and fever.

The students are participating in a workshop with members of the Pantanal Partnership, a group of University of Michigan students who have been traveling to the wetland region of Brazil for the last four years. The student organization is working to create sustainable systems that Pantanal residents can use to get clean water, energy and education.

The team hopes that providing these resources to the rural area will encourage its native residents to stay there. Currently, residents of the Pantanal must travel 150 kilometers down a dirt highway known as the “Transpantaneira” to the nearest city of Poconé for access to education and healthcare. Many leave the area to move to the big city, where they are often faced with a life of poverty.

“I wanted to prevent the rural exodus of people pushing away from their own historic and cultural heritage,” said U-M alumnus Ethan Shirley, the co-founder of Pantanal Partnership. Shirley has been traveling to the Pantanal since he was a teenager.  “I've lived here for years, so this is my community, my family and friends. As an expert on the area, I can attest that there is not a whole lot going into conservation and sustainability in the Pantanal.”

Michigan Engineering student Grace Hilbert shows Brazilian students bacteria that the UM students grew in the drinking water samples provided by local students from their houses. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, College of Engineering Multimedia Producer

A University of Michigan student collects water from a water filer the students built in a small rural town of Chumbo in Brazil. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, College of Engineering Multimedia ProducerTo combat that, the group has broken into a number of sub-teams, each tasked with creating specific technologies for the area. The Water Systems Team, who conducts workshops with primary school students, are also analyzing water in the area and constructing biosand filters that can help rid the drinking water of bacteria, and make it safer to digest. Another team is analyzing current waste systems, working on building bio-digesters and other methods that are more efficient and sustainable.

“Technologies such as a biosand filter can improve lives with less environmental impact,” said Greg Ewing, a recent graduate of Civil and Environmental Engineering and former president of Pantanal. “Improving lives with minimal effect to the environment is an important and worthwhile cause.”

Also involved is an Energy Systems Team, who are currently working on wind turbines. The team tested out small-scale turbines at local schools this year as a potential for future workshops, and are also building a larger model at the Pantanal Center for Education and Research (PCER). The center, which was constructed in the summer of 2010 by a team of 22 U-M students, hosts volunteers, training courses and programs run through U-M. It also serves as the testing ground for ideas and technologies that they hope to export to other areas.

“When you boil it down, the goal is to help others. To make the people of the Pantanal, and hopefully other rural places, have an easier, happier life,” said Simon Trask, a mechanical engineering student who became involved with Pantanal Partnership as a freshman.

“The experience has changed my world view. I put more of an emphasis on people now and their substance over things or materials,” said Ewing. “I'm passionate about this project because of the people, and I keep coming back because of the people.”

U-M student Kaitlin Ma breaks down the contraction of a sand-based water filter

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U-M student Kaitlin Ma breaks down the contraction of a sand-based water filter for a group of Brazilian students in a small rural town of Congas. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

U-M alumnus Ethan Shirley and U-M student Micaela McCabe explain the engineering behind sand-based water filters

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U-M alumnus Ethan Shirley and U-M student Micaela McCabe explain the engineering behind sand-based water filters to Brazilian students in a small rural town of Congas. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

Brazilian students examine the water-based bacteria grown in a petri dish by U-M students.

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Brazilian students David Ailva de Mendonca (left) and Gean Bruno do Carmo Dias Oliveira examine the water-based bacteria grown in a petri dish by U-M students. The bacteria grew in a water sample from the kids' drinking water. Photo: Photo by Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

U-M alumnus and Pantanal Partnership co-founder Ethan Shirley shows Brazilian students a slideshow of bacteria

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U-M alumnus and Pantanal Partnership co-founder Ethan Shirley shows Brazilian students a slideshow of bacteria during a class about water sanitation at a school in the rural town of Chumbo in Brazil. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

Michigan Engineering student Grace Hilbert shows Brazilian students bacteria

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Michigan Engineering student Grace Hilbert shows Brazilian students bacteria that the U-M students grew in the drinking water samples provided by local students from their houses. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

Michigan Engineering students prepare a large plastic barrel for a water filer they are building

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Michigan Engineering students Grace Hilbert and Micaela McCabe prepare a large plastic barrel before they use it as a housing for a water filer they are building in a small rural town of Chumbo in Brazil. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

Michigan Engineering students and local Brazilian students dump sand and gravel to a large barrel as a base for a water filter

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Michigan Engineering students (including Grace Hilbert) and local Brazilian students dump sand and gravel to a large barrel as a base for a water filter in a small rural town of Chumbo in Brazil. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

Jacare waits for prey

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Jacare (cayman) waits for prey on the side of the road called Transpantaneira in Pantanal in Brazil near the U-M student van. The road is a link between the city of Poconé and the place of Porto Jofre. It's 147 km long and crosses at least 122 wooden bridges over the largest marshes in the world. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

U-M student Rianna Penn adds water to a biodigester

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U-M student Rianna Penn adds water to a biodigester to check how tight it is at the Pantanal Center for Education and Research in Pantanal, Brazil. The biodigester is supposed to convert animal and organic waste into gas and energy. The PCER was built by the U-M based Pantanal Partnership. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

U-M students jump into a small river to refresh themselves

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Despite the caymans swimming nearby, U-M students jump into a small river to refresh themselves near the U-M student-run Pantanal Center for Education and Research in Pantanal in Brazil. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

Local resident explains how best to knock down coconuts

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U-M student Alex Thompson (in the back) and recent graduate of the U-M College of Engineering Gregory Ewing are consulted by local resident Celso Rondon de Arruda on how to best knock down coconuts from a tree at the student-run Pantanal Center for Education and Research in Pantanal in Brazil. He tied his machete to the stick they were using and told them to cut them off. It worked. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

U-M students work on cleaning and reconnecting a large PVC pipe

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U-M students Ellen Vial and Alex Thompson work on cleaning and reconnecting a large PVC pipe that is an integral part of a biodigester they are working on at the Pantanal Center for Education and Research in Pantanal, Brazil. The biodigester is supposed to convert animal and organic waste into gas and energy. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski, Michigan Engineering Communications and Marketing.

About Michigan Engineering: The University of Michigan College of Engineering is one of the top engineering schools in the country. Eight academic departments are ranked in the nation's top 10 -- some twice for different programs. Its research budget is one of the largest of any public university. Its faculty and students are making a difference at the frontiers of fields as diverse as nanotechnology, sustainability, healthcare, national security and robotics. They are involved in spacecraft missions across the solar system, and have developed partnerships with automotive industry leaders to transform transportation. Its entrepreneurial culture encourages faculty and students alike to move their innovations beyond the laboratory and into the real world to benefit society. Its alumni base of nearly 70,000 spans the globe.

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