Category: NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program

ESF Grand Challenges Scholars Program scholar, Elliott Carlson, presents their talent competency on project experience in Marichaj, Guatemala.  They explain how a research perspective helps advance engineering solutions to pressing problems affecting sustainability.  Project partners include non-profit organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and research supervisor, Swiatoslav Kaczmar PE.  The Grand Challenge addressed in this competency is Provide Access to Clean Water. The project report is online here.

The EWB student chapter at ESF was tasked with designing a water distribution system for a rural community in the highlands of Guatemala.  Due to both the unique physical and atmospheric conditions of the area, the community experienced multiple months of no rain, commonly referred to as the dry season. During this period of the year, the community was required to walk roughly 5 kilometers in order to reach their water source.  During the wet season, the community used rainwater catchment systems, installed on each dwelling, to collect water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking (Figure 1).  Our team worked closely with community members and non-profit organizations in order to determine the best solution to the problem.  Our goal was to provide water to the community during the 3-4 months of the dry season.

Figure 1. Example of rainwater catchment system installed on a home in the Marichaj community

At the start of the project, a team of five students and one mentor traveled to meet the community members and collect much needed information for the design.  This included collecting GPS data points, conducting community surveys, and getting a general idea of problem.  During our trip, the community showed us a stream that they were hoping to use as the source of water.  This stream was fed by a spring higher up in the mountains and would be ideal starting point for the water pipeline.  The group hiked the route of the proposed pipeline: down the stream, across a valley, and back up to the community (Figure 2).  Any engineering design takes into account all possible alternatives.  Therefore, the team developed plans to investigate three alternatives: the spring, groundwater, and expansion of the current rainwater system.

Figure 2. Elliott Carlson (bottom right), EWB team, and community members at the source of the spring

Upon returning from the assessment trip, the student team broke up into three groups to explore the three alternatives.  My group was tasked with expanding the rainwater catchment system.  This method of water collection was familiar to the community members.  This method would require an increase in catchment surface area, installation of water storage, and the development of a disinfection method.  In order to provide during the dry season, roughly 2 million liters of water would need to be collected and stored during the wet season.  This number was calculated using the community size of 500 people, the average dry season length of 100 days, and the United Nations per capita water demand of 30 liters.  Additionally, a factor of safety of 30 percent was added to account for variability and community population increase.

The catchment area under consideration that would provide for the calculated demand were the roofs of the community’s school and church.  The school’s roof was measured to be 2500 square feet and the church 1200 square feet.  This would provide a total area of 3700 square feet of additional rainwater catchment surface area.  Using both the volume required and the available square feet, it was determine that 19 feet of rainfall would need to fall during the wet season in order to provide for the dry season.  Unfortunately, the average annual rainfall was found to be roughly 7.5 feet using information gathered from TRMM rainfall data.  With this being the case, the rainfall catchment area would need to be larger than what was available in the community.  The rainwater catchment and storage alternative did not seem to be the best option.  However, it was not eliminated due to the potential for it to be paired with another alternative.  The rainwater catchment system did indeed meet the design goal of providing the community with additional water.  However, the rainwater catchment design alone would not suffice.  This design could be paired with a piping system that distributed water from a nearby spring.  Alternatively, the rainwater catchment system could be paired with a system that pumps from a nearby groundwater source.  An investigation into nearby springs and groundwater sources would need to be further developed in order to determine the best alternative or combination of alternatives.

ESF Grand Challenges Scholars Program scholar, Elliott Carlson, presents their business / entrepreneurship competency on workshop experience in Rochester, New York.  They explain how a business / entrepreneurship perspective helps advance engineering solutions to pressing problems affecting sustainability.  Workshop partners include the University of Rochester Hajim School GCSP Director Emma Derisi and ESF GCSP Director Dr. Ted Endreny PE.  The Grand Challenge addressed in this competency is Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure.

The City of Rochester faces a problem that many cities throughout the Unites States is facing.  A lack of affordable housing for its lower income residents is causing a rise in homelessness in urban areas.  In an effort to combat this rise, organizations have been developed to tackle the issue of homelessness in Rochester area.  This aid comes in the form of land trusts, shelters, and other social programs fighting for an increase in the availability of affordable housing.  In addition, there exists governmental programs that work to fill the ever increasing gap.

The NAE GCSP Design Thinking Workshop at the University of Rochester provided the opportunity to gain a first-hand experience learning more about those experiencing homelessness in Rochester the area.  At the workshop, NAE scholars met with local community partners to learn more about the steps that have been taken to tackle such a challenging issue.  My group had the chance to meet with Allie Dentinger, the Director and Co-Founder of the organization Supports on the Streets.  As an outreach team, the organization works to connect with those facing homelessness and works hard to meet their needs.

Figure 1. Elliott Carlson collaborating with team members during the prototype stage of the design thinking process

Students in attendance were provided with the opportunity to apply their knowledge using the design thinking process.  This is a multistep human-centered design process that encourages a focus on the user.  The steps include: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.  Following these steps ensures the final product or service is properly designed for the end user.  For example, Supports on the Streets empathizes with those facing homelessness in order to better define the issues faced.  This is a cruicial first step when attempting to find a solution to a problem.  Using this topic, student groups worked together to come up with ideas, or ideate, as to how the previously identified problem could be solved.  Close to a hundred ideas were generated within each group due to the creative conversation and energy generated at the workshop.  Following the brainstorm, ideas were condensed and combined with each iteration until a final, overarching solution was produced.  Using the final design, the business model canvas was used to identify key partners, activities, and resources as well as costs / revenue associated with the final design.  Most importantly, the relationship with the customer was identified using information gathered throughout the design process, from start to finish.

In addition to viewing the user as the beneficiary of the design, any investors or funders must also be considered.  In order to have a sustainable initiative, be that combatting homelessness, some amount of financial support will be needed.  In order to receive the necessary support, incentives must be woven into the design process.  Doing so, ensures a strong design that includes a strong business plan.  However, basing one’s design fully on said business plan isn’t always the best for sustainability.  A balance should be established between the design and the business plan, neither one relying heavily on the other.  Through my involvement in the Design Thinking Workshop, I’ve come to understand the necessity of a viable business model when it comes to implementing a solution.  The earlier on in the design process the business model is considered, the more integrated it will be.  Additionally, the business plan will have a greater effect on the sustainability of the chosen final design.


ESF Grand Challenges Scholars Program scholar, Elliott Carlson, presents their social consciousness competency on project experience in Arcahaie, Haiti.  They explain how a socially conscious perspective helps advance engineering solutions to pressing problems affecting sustainability.  The Grand Challenge addressed in this competency is Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure.

The proper management of solid waste is an integral part of maintaining human health, safety, and the quality of the environment.  Currently, wastes in Haiti are poorly managed through the use of the unregulated Truitier Landfill, near the country’s capital.  As the population of Haiti continues to grow, the quantity of waste produced also increases.  A change in the way wastes are managed will improve quality of life and environmental conditions.

SUNY Global plans to develop the Sustainable Village and Learning Community (SVLC) in Arcahaie, Haiti.  This satellite campus would be home to a variety of SUNY colleges and serve as an educational hub for the community.  A partnership between SUNY and local non-profit organizations would create opportunities for empowered Haitians to make social and economic change through education.  Currently, the site planned for the SVLC has very little development and has been used as a dumping ground for municipal solid waste (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Current condition of Sustainable Village Learning Community site in Arcahaie, Haiti

In the final year of the Environmental Resources Engineering (ERE) major, students are required to work in a group to complete a senior capstone project.  My team was tasked with developing a waste management plan for the SVLC.  Using our best engineering judgement and information both provided and researched, we worked to determine the best method of managing both construction and operational wastes.  The final design was determined by analyzing all considered alternatives based on the previously set forth performance criteria.  A large part of this process included assessing each alternative based on the three pillars of sustainability; economic, social, and environmental.  In addition, we used the knowledge gained from the ERE 468 course, Solid and Hazardous Waste Engineering.

Throughout the research and design process our team was in contact with local community organizations who had knowledge of the current conditions and operations.  Using this knowledge, we looked to create partnerships with organizations who have previously instituted initiatives regarding solid waste management.  For example, Plastic Bank and Haiti Recycling supports the Ramase Lajan program.  This initiative enables locals to collect plastic bottles from their community and return them in exchange for monetary compensation.  Not only are Haitians provided with a source of income, they are improving the quality of their community.  These collection facilities are located throughout the country and are typically created from retrofitted shipping containers (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Example of a Ramase Lajan plastic bottle collection facility in Haiti

Understanding the community dynamic in which you are working is imperative when developing appropriate engineering designs.  As engineers, we aim for our designs to be as sustainable as possible.  Through understanding the social, economic, and environmental issues faced in a community, an engineer can better design in order to solve interdisciplinary problems.  By engaging in a collaborative engineering design process, my senior capstone team was able to recommend the best method of managing solid waste at the SVLC Haiti site.  Additionally, through the development of community partnerships, the SVLC will take on a socially conscious perspective to not only advance engineering solutions but improve sustainability within Haiti.

ESF Grand Challenges Scholars Program scholar, Elliott Carlson, presents their multidisciplinary competency on project experience in Vieques, Puerto Rico.  They explain how a multidisciplinary perspective helps advance engineering solutions to pressing problems affecting sustainability.  The Grand Challenge addressed in this competency is Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure.

When Hurricane Maria made landfall only two weeks after Hurricane Irma, the Caribbean islands were not prepared.  The island of Puerto Rico is home to FEMA’s Caribbean Distribution Center, the islands’ only emergency stockpile of supplies.  The warehouse was 83% depleted with 90% of water supplies and 100% of tarps and cots deployed after Hurricane Irma.  As the category 4 hurricane made landfall, 80,000 still remained without power.  This number, along with the number of casualties, would only increase due to lack of preparedness and post disaster support.

Vieques is a small island municipality, off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico.  It was also severely impacted during the 2017 storms.  The island experienced flooding, power outages, and infrastructure damage.  In addition, the island’s population experienced scarcities in their potable water supply.  Receiving very little aid from either the federal or Puerto Rican government, the community of Vieques was on their own to recover in the weeks following the hurricane.  To do so, key community members stepped forward to help lead the recovery process.  They worked to ensure that fellow community members were safe and provided with the necessary assistance.  Moving forward, the community hopes to design a more sustainable Vieques.  In the event of any future disasters, the island would be better prepared by developing to increase their resiliency, decrease their dependence, and better utilize available resources (Davidson et. al., 2010).

Figure 1. Elliott Carlson (far left) and group meets with Ardelle Negretti to discuss plans regarding the development of Parque la Ceiba de Vieques

In order to implement a sustainable engineering plan, design, or project, one must consider the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental.  To best meet these pillars through engineering design, an interdisciplinary systems approach must be adopted.  In order to produce the best design, there must exist a close cooperation among researchers with different yet complementary interests and fields of knowledge.  Studies regarding the development of smart city models show that an interdisciplinary approach is necessary for the successful, effective, and sustainable implementation of the plan (Andrisano et. al., 2018).  Combining both a systems and interdisciplinary perspective leads to better informed engineering design that connects to the environmental, social, and economic sectors.

While in Vieques, the team of students had the opportunity to meet with multiple community leaders who were working to improve their community.  In one meeting, students heard from Ardelle Negretti who shared proposed plans for Parque la Ceiba de Vieques (Figure 1).  The park, located on the northern coast of the island, is home to the more than 300 year old Ceiba tree.  Ardelle and her team are working to further develop the park as a tribute to the people of Vieques.  This coastal area would be used for recreation and relaxation as well as serve as a tribute to the resiliency of both the Ceiba and the people of Vieques.  As our team discussed the plans with Ardelle, many ideas were brought to light.  These included the implementation of green infrastructure and coastal resiliency projects, the potential for environmental and historical education, and the potential for local revenue by increasing eco-tourism.  All of these ideas were brought to light through a conversation with students from many different majors.  Through the use of different yet complimentary fields of knowledge, designs can be created that connect the environmental, social, and economic sectors to best fit the needs of the user.

Figure 2. Elliott Carlson (second from the right) with fellow students and instructors sharing interdisciplinary perspectives on challenges faced by the island of Vieques

The design process of an engineering project is the most critical stage.  It is the easiest point at which changes can be made and functions can be added.  A focus on the design ensures peek economic, environmental, and social performance throughout the project’s life.  Through the involvement of a multidisciplinary team, a well-rounded design can be created to best serve the user.  Additionally, multidisciplinary teams is a cost effective way to increase productivity and reduce negative environmental impacts (Stansinoupolos et. al., 2013).  An example of this includes a small run-of-river hydropower project in Thailand.  The design team faced problems such as lack of accessibility to possible sites, large quantity of data required, and lack of participation from the local community.  Through the use of a multidisciplinary approach, the design team considered engineering, economic, environmental criteria as well as the design’s social impact (Rojanamon et. al., 2009). The team used GIS to find site locations, conducted economic evaluations, defined environmental parameters, and conducted a social impact study all during the design stage of the project.  A design method such as this is applicable in many cases and can be verified by the site selection results.

As we considered our team’s role in the development of a more sustainable Vieques, we addressed the knowledge and information gained from our time on the island.  How can we, as students of various programs at ESF (Figure 2), use what we have learned to aid in the design of a more resilient and sustainable Vieques?  Through the use of an interdisciplinary team, we can connect the environmental, economic, and social sectors of design to best meet the user’s need.  Specific to my major, being provided with a systems perspective allows me to better develop the engineering design.  By bringing together members from different yet complimentary disciplines, designs can be better engineered to meet project goals.  As engineers, it is our duty to produce the best option to best serve its user economically, socially, and environmentally.


Andrisano, O., et. al. (2018). The need of multidisciplinary approaches and engineering tools for the development and implementation of the smart city paradigm. Proceedings of the IEEE. 106(4), 738-760. doi: 10.1109/JPROC.2018.2812836

Davidson, C. I., et. al. (2010). Preparing future engineers for challenges of the 21st century: Sustainable engineering. Journal of Cleaner Production. 18(7), 698-701. doi: 10.1016/J.JCLEPRO.2009.12.021

Stansinoupolos, P., et. al. (2013). Whole System Design: an integrated approach to sustainable engineering. doi: 10.4324/9781849773775

Rojanamon, P., et. al. (2009). Application of geographical information system to site selection of small run-of-river hydropower project by considering engineering / economic / environmental criteria and social impact. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 18(9), 2336-2348. doi: 10.1016/j.rser.2009.07.003

ESF Grand Challenges Scholars Program scholar, Elliott Carlson, presents their multicultural competency on project experience in Boaco, Nicaragua.  They explain how a multicultural perspective helps advance engineering solutions to pressing problems affecting sustainability.  The Grand Challenge addressed in this competency is Provide Access to Clean Water.

In our everyday lives, we do not often think of what our next source of water will be.  We turn on the faucet expecting the water to flow out both steadily and most importantly, clean.  We’ve grown to trust our homes, our towns, or our cities to provide its residents with a reliable source of clean water.  Now, imagine this was not the case.  Many people throughout the world are required to walk miles to their closest water source.  In addition to the distance traveled, the source may be unreliable or even unclean, leading to more time or energy spent obtaining water.

This is somewhat the case at a school on the outskirts of Boaco, Nicaragua.  Located about 20 minutes off the main highway, the schools is not connected to any grid of utilities such as water, sanitation, or electricity.  They rely on hand pumps located throughout the community to extract from the groundwater source.  These pumps require the user to rotate a large wheel in order to raise the water to the surface.  This is a time consuming and energy intensive method to obtain water, especially for the children who attended the school.


Figure 1. Elliott Carlson (left) with Gustavo Reyes PE (right) installing water distribution system

In addition to general academics, the instructors wanted to teach the students about agriculture.  Specially, a method of farming adopted in the region called sustainable mini-farming or biointensive farming.  These methods strive to use the natural resources as efficiently as possible and grow the food naturally.  Methods such as deep soil preparation, composting, companion planting, and carbon farming are adopted.  The instructors at the school also wanted to develop gardens on site where the students would have the opportunity to have hands on learning experience.  In order to successfully develop agricultural plots at the school, the method of water delivery would need to be upgraded.

Figure 2. Construction of the school’s water distribution system to feed agricultural gardens

Conveniently located on site was a well with a hand pump installed.  This pump was upgraded to solar pump to provide a more energy efficient method of transporting the water to the surface.  Additionally, a tank was added to the site in order to provide a water reserve for the school (Figure 1).  The tank would be fed by the solar pump then distributed to the three garden beds through a drip irrigation system (Figure 2).  This system would ensure the tank is consistently filled and the beds are provided enough water to promote growth.  Not only does this water distribution system provide a reliable source of water to the school it also decreases the amount of energy required obtain the water.

By working closely with the local community beneficiaries, our team was able to design and implement a system that would provide the school with reliable clean water.  By adapting the previously used groundwater pumping method, the school is now outfitted with a solar pump, piping, tank, and drip irrigated agricultural beds.  These improvements create an environment for students to have hands on learning opportunities to develop their agricultural skills.  By taking a familiar method of water acquisition and improving it, the community felt comfortable with the new system.  Through the understanding of a different culture, the proposed engineering solution was accepted, implemented, and adopted by the community.


ESF Grand Challenge Scholars Program scholar, Kristina Macro, explains how service learning develops a social consciousness critical to developing appropriate engineering designs.

Kristina Macro representing ESF in service learning.

As a member of the SUNY-ESF chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and Engineering for a Sustainable Society (ESS) throughout my undergraduate years at ESF, I saw firsthand the impact that service learning experiences can have both on the communities served and on engineering student volunteers. Personally, I participated in service learning projects at all stages of the engineering process, from assessing and analyzing design alternatives to implementing a final design. These projects have taken me from homes in Syracuse to the village of Las Majadas, Guatemala. Along the way, I learned how the NAE Grand Challenges of providing access to clean water and restoring and improving urban infrastructure can be achieved through a combination of sustainable designs and sustainable partnerships.

Palajunoj Valley, south of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, and site of the EWB sanitation project at the Las Majadas primary school.

Working on composting latrine and water supply projects for the village of Las Majadas with the Syracuse Professionals chapter of EWB enabled me to address these grand challenges. In May 2016, I traveled to Las Majadas with the professionals to begin the implementation phase for their composting latrine project at an elementary school and to start assessing rainwater catchment as an additional water source for the village.

Kristina Macro with future leaders of Las Majadas, Guatemala.

When we arrived at the village, we were welcomed by the support of community leaders, EWB representatives, a local NGO called Primeros Pasos, a Peace Corps volunteer, and community members of all ages. After meeting together to explain our goals for the project and answer their concerns, we got to work. With our shovels and mediocre Spanish, we worked side by side with both men and women from the community who had volunteered their own time and tools to the project. EWB requires that communities provide a portion of the labor and/or finances for projects, which is critical for project success. It ensures that the community will feel responsible for the project and that designs will be implemented using local knowledge.

EWB Members in Las Majadas, Guatemala.

While we had gone through the design process, knew the materials we needed, and had the building drawings ready to go, we were still engineers and students, not experts on construction in developing countries. With the help of the community volunteers, we learned how to bend rebar properly, set up a water level appropriate for the site, and acquire the right tools for the project. We really could not have completed the project without them.

Doing service learning through EWB and ESS has taught me that the NAE grand challenges won’t be solved unless people of different backgrounds are working together and contributing their unique expertise/skills. An appropriate technology design may be innovative, but it may never come to fruition without community partnerships that will last for years after the design is implemented. Service learning was a critical part of my engineering education and my personal growth during my undergraduate years, and I plan to continue to volunteer my time to projects and programs that are committed to solving the NAE grand challenges and related issues.

ESF Grand Challenge Scholars Program scholar, Kristina Macro, explains how a global perspective helps advance engineering solutions to pressing problems affecting sustainability.

Clean water is something that we tend to take for granted in the United States, so to truly understand how to engineer solutions for the grand challenge of providing access to clean water, it is necessary to gain a global perspective. Crumbling urban infrastructure is another issue that can be seen closer to home, but this grand challenge also needs to be addressed in areas of the world that have not yet developed modern urban infrastructure. After traveling in 2015 to Costa Rica with the ESF Ecological Engineering in the Tropics, ERE 311 course, I learned how a global perspective can change the way you approach solving these problems.

Kristina Macro, 2nd from left, learning about cloud forests in Costa Rica.

The goal of the Ecological Engineering in the Tropics course is to teach how ecological engineering, designing with nature, can be used as a tool in sustainable development. We traveled around the country to see different ecosystems and to visit Rancho Mastatal, an ecological education center. There we learned about permaculture practices, sustainable designs such as solar heated showers and composting latrines, agroforestry, and issues in Costa Rica that could be addressed through ecological engineering designs.

Kristina Macro helping build an infiltration trench and settling basin as part of a stormwater management plan for Rancho Mastatal.

Many issues in Costa Rica stem from agricultural practices that create monocultures of crops such as banana and pineapples that reduce biodiversity, degrade soil quality, and introduce chemical pollutants into streams (Cornwell 2014). These issues can be addressed by using agroforestry management practices that provide habitat connectivity and recycle nutrients back into the system. At Rancho Mastatal, we learned how these practices are implemented and the challenges associated with them.

Water supply and sanitation is another major concern in Costa Rica. In addition to pollution from agricultural chemicals, streams have been polluted by untreated sewage and sediment from unprotected forests (Bower 2014). Bower states that only 3% of sewage is treated before it is released into the environment, resulting on more money being spent on the treatment of water-borne diseases than on water supply and treatment in Costa Rica. Ensuring proper wastewater treatment practices are in place is a critical step in providing sustainable access to clean water. This problem can be addressed through typical grey infrastructure and wastewater treatment plants, but ecological engineering solutions such as wastewater treatment wetland systems and composting latrines provide the opportunity to prevent pollution in a more sustainable way. In addition, in developing countries like Costa Rica, it may be more appropriate to implement wastewater treatment wetlands than build treatment facilities in some communities. Composting latrines are an even more decentralized approach that can be applied at an individual residence or community center scale.

Kristina with her student colleagues after the presentation of their ecological engineering design.

Implementing these ecological engineering solutions in developing countries helps communities develop sustainably, but can also give engineers the global perspective they need to implement these nature-based technologies in the United States. While our country may not have as many cases of water-borne illnesses, it still has polluted waters, combined sewer overflows, contaminants of emerging concern, and high energy consumption rates at wastewater treatment facilities. These issues can be solved through ecological engineering. Implementing treatment wetlands and composting latrines can help the United States address the challenges of providing access to clean water and improving urban infrastructure in a more sustainable way. The NAE grand challenges need to be approached with a global perspective because the solutions should have a positive global impact.

Cornwell, E. September 2014. Effects of different agricultural systems on soil quality in Northern Limon province, Costa Rica. Revista De Biologia Tropical, 62(3), 887-897
Bower, K. M. January 2014, Water supply and sanitation in Costa Rica. Environmental Earth Sciences, 71(1), 107-123

ESF Grand Challenge Scholars Program scholar, Kristina Macro, presents the Gateway to Rethinking Organic Waste (GROW) business plan. Kristina’s GROW design team included Grace Belisle, Mark Tepper, Denali Trimble, and Julia Woznicki.

Many people in the world do not see food waste as a valuable resource. Even those that want to keep food waste from landfills do not compost their food waste because they find the process inconvenient, time consuming, and/or unpleasant. GROW, the Gateway to Rethinking Organic Waste, is a personal compost container that exceeds the capabilities of those on the market by widening the scope of usage and functionality. The GROW kit, shaped as a hexagon, takes food waste and creates a raised garden bed. The kit includes compost starter and seeds.

Learn more about GROW with this business plan and engaging video!

ESF Grand Challenge Scholars Program scholar, Kristina Macro, explains how sustainable engineering design requires a systems perspective, where fields such as economics, ecology, and sociology inform engineering.

The drinkable book, which is a novel concept for providing potable water.

To address the grand challenge of providing access to clean water, it is critical to understand the economic, environmental, and social impacts that a new technology or system will have both in the short and long term. An exciting new technology that addresses this challenge is the Drinkable Book. This product uses silver nanoparticles embedded in filter paper to kill bacteria and make water safe to drink in areas that do not have access to potable water.

Each page of the drinkable book is a filter to clean many pollutants from water.

The filter paper was developed by Dr. Theresa Dankovich, and with the help of a design team, it was made into a book that also includes educational information about water-borne diseases and how to keep water clean. To use the book, one simply tears out a page, slides it into the slot on the filter box that comes with it, and pours water through it. The amount of time it takes for the water to filter through depends on the turbidity of the water (Nodjimbadem 2015). Each filter can clean about 26 gallons of water, so the entire 25-page book would last four years for one person.

When water is poured through the paper, 99.9 percent of harmful bacteria such as cholera, E. coli, and typhoid are killed (Berkowitz 2015). The bacteria are inactivated by silver ions during the percolation process, so they are not just removed by filtration. The silver loss from the filter paper is minimal, with levels under 0.1 ppm, the US EPA limit for silver in drinking water (Dankovich & Gray 2011). These results show that the silver embedded filter paper could be an effective appropriate technology for emergency water treatment. The book meets the objectives for emergency treatment systems to be cost effective, highly portable, nontoxic, easy to use and distribute, and have a low energy input.

Field testing of the drinkable book filter paper.

Field testing of the filter paper has been done in South Africa, Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya, and Bangladesh in partnership with the organizations WATERisLIFE and iDE-Bangladesh (Levine 2016). These studies have shown that the paper works as a filter for water in many different regions of the world, with one case showing that the paper was able to reduce bacteria levels in dilute raw sewage to levels comparable to U.S. tap water. The field testing team worked with community members to address their concerns and opinions about the design. This will help them ensure that the final design is accepted by the communities. As a result of working with the communities, they are working on a simple design for filter paper holders that will be easy for community members to use.

This technology has been seen as a solution that could help reduce the number of cases of water-borne diseases and increase access to potable water all over the world. However, it is important to understand what economic, environmental, and social impacts the Drinkable Book may have before it is implemented at a large scale.

From an economic perspective, the Drinkable Book’s low cost makes widespread distribution feasible. However, the nature of the book’s production and materials creates a dependency of the communities served on the pAge Drinking Paper organization created by Dankovich and other non-profits. The books would most likely be given to communities as donations, which although helpful in short term and emergency situations, could become detrimental to the communities in the future (Prough 2015). Considering a moral obligation to help people in need and the risk of perpetuating the cycle of dependency on wealthier countries is an ethical dilemma that needs to be explored for any engineering project that affects communities in developing countries.

The filter paper in the Drinkable Book may have negative environmental impacts. The silver nanoparticles in the filter paper could pose a threat to ecosystems if they are released into the environment (Prough 2015). Even though levels of silver loss were minimal in lab experiments, the amount of loss may change over time as the paper is used more and breaks down. The filter paper is designed to be thrown away once it is no longer effective, so there could be issues with the proper disposal of the filter papers. The book could be more sustainable than other energy intensive treatment processes, but a life cycle analysis of the book and its filter papers would need to be done to fully assess its environmental impact.

Providing clean water for communities that did not have access to potable water previously would most likely have positive social impacts. Less people will suffer and die from water-borne diseases, and community members wouldn’t have to worry about getting sick from drinking water. However, as previously mentioned, a sense of dependency may have a negative social impact.

Although there are many concerns regarding its economic, environmental, and social impacts, the Drinkable Book has the potential to provide access to clean water for people all over the world. These concerns must be addressed in future studies while applying a systems perspective to the design process. Approaching the design from a systems perspective will make it possible to solve the grand challenge of providing access to clean water in a sustainable way that will have a positive impact on the communities it serves.

Berkowitz, K. (2015). Living by the book: chemist Theresa Dankovich’s filters could save millions of lives. Human Ecology, (1), 41.
Dankovich, T. A., & Gray, D. G. (2011). Bactericidal paper impregnated with silver nanoparticles for point-of-use water treatment. Environmental Science & Technology, 45(5), 1992-1998. doi:10.1021/es103302t
Levine, J. 2016. pAge Papers: Pilot scale tests of Drinkable Book. Indiegogo. Retrieved from:
Nodjimbadem, K. August 16, 2015. Could This ‘Drinkable Book’ Provide Clean Water to the Developing World?. Retrieved from:

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Fig 3: Image credit:

Research conducted with Dr. Aldo R. Pinon-Villarreal and Dr. A. Salim Bawazir as part of the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates, convened at New Mexico State. This NSF REU supported the Re-Inventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure program. The research was titled, “Stem water potential in desert willow grown in clinoptilolite zeolite and in-situ riparian soil”. The abstract follows:

Reestablishing native vegetation in riparian areas of southwestern United States is difficult because of the reduction of natural floods by channelization practices, timing of rainfall, and competition against saltcedar. A previous study demonstrated that clinoptilolite zeolite (CZ) could be used as a wicking material to raise sufficient moisture from shallow groundwater (< 3 m deep) to sustain plant establishment and growth. However, no studies have explored the effects that CZ has on water stress in established vegetation. This study evaluated the stem water potential (ψstem) of desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) grown in CZ cores or unamended in-situ riparian soil (RS) as part of a riparian zone rehabilitation study in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Root zone volumetric moisture content (θv), plant ψstem, and leaf chlorophyll content (LCC) for three to four randomly selected specimens in each substrate treatment within different DGW zones were undertaken from June 7 to July 7, 2016. Results from the study showed that the CZ treatment in Zone 2 under a deeper DGW of 2 m had significantly lower ψstem than the RS treatment (p = 0.002 – 0.06). However no differences in treatment ψstem averages were found in Zone 1 under a shallower DGW of 1.4 m (p = 0.90 – 0.95). Root zone θv was negatively correlated with ψstem, but this relationship was weaker for CZ treatments. Most treatment θv and LCC averages decreased while ψstem increased over the course of the study. This was related to low precipitation and the consistent increase in mean temperatures, with daily maxima reaching as high as 41°C and during the study period. These results can be used to determine the appropriate groundwater conditions where CZ could be used in future urban riparian restoration projects.

Kristina’s full study can be accessed online.


Figure 1. Map of the Sunland Park Test Bed riparian rehabilitation area showing planting zones for five native plant species and groundwater piezometers.

Figure 2. Map of desert willows grown in riparian soil (RS) and clinoptilolite zeolite (CZ) cores at the Sunland Park Test Bed

Figure 5. Stem water potential vs. volumetric moisture content for both depth to groundwater zones