New thinking solving old problems

Justin Lenihan during his tram's EWB final presentation. Photo b: Hannah Jenkins

Justin Lenihan during his tram's EWB final presentation. Photo b: Hannah Jenkins

In summary: 
  • The 2016 EWB Challenge required first-year engineering students to deliver innovative sanitation, hygiene, energy and clean water solutions for people living in the Mayukwayukwa refugee camp in Zambia
  • One of UTS’s stand-out projects was a centrifugal ceramic water filtration system, powered by a bicycle, which could filter water eight times faster than the community’s current water filtration system

Every year, a fresh group of aspiring engineers enters UTS’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology. And every year, those students undertake the Engineering and Communication subject, throwing them into a challenge that tests their perception of what it means to be an engineer.

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is a not-for-profit organisation that works within Australia and abroad to improve access to clean water, sanitation, hygiene and energy. Each year, they combine with participating universities, like UTS, to run the EWB Challenge – a program for first-year engineering students to deliver innovative solutions to real-world problems.

“It is always based on a community where there needs to be some improvement in living standards,” explains Subject Coordinator for Engineering Communication Sally Inchbold-Busby.

“What’s important about the challenge is that the students often come to university having a stereotypical idea of what an engineer is, and that’s often technology based. This project allows students, working in groups, to think outside of technology and about the social implications of what they do,” says Inchbold-Busby.

This year, the EWB design brief focused on the community of Mayukwayukwa in Zambia. One of UTS’s stand-out projects was a centrifugal ceramic water filtration system powered by a bicycle.

Biomedical engineering student Justin Lenihan, one of the group’s team members, says, “We focused on water in the community, as the area has high levels of iron oxide and bacteria in the water which bio-accumulates over time. This design means they don’t have to treat it themselves as the water is collected through a ground bore and they just pump it.”

Sketch of the bicycle-powered water filtration mechanism. Image by: Justin Lenihan and Michael Crapis Sketch of the bicycle-powered water filtration mechanism. Image by: Justin Lenihan and Michael Crapis

Fellow engineering and creative intelligence and innovation student Pratiksha Chuttar says, “Currently, Mayukweyukwa has a basic ball pump to pump the water out; it’s a very labour-intensive operation. Nurses and staff from the medical centre should be in the medical centre, but instead they are spending so much time pumping water out for the hospitals. So we designed a bike attachment which is a lot less strenuous than a hand-powered pump.

“They’ll get a lot more water out of it, plus it incorporates a centrifuge that pushes the water through various filters, so at the end they’ll have clean, filtered water.”

Leninhan adds, “The community’s current filter takes one hour to filter three litres of water using gravity. According to my rough calculations, our design would make three litres of filtered water in just seven minutes.”

Chuttar says a key focus for the group was to create a culturally appropriate solution. 

“Communities are often given solutions they don’t connect to, so it doesn’t work out. It’s important that solutions are appropriate culturally and socially, are cost-effective and can be easily implemented.”

Last year, a UTS group won the national EWB competition after pitching their sanitation solution of a waterless, double-pit toilet (Fossa Alterna) to a panel in Canberra made up of community representatives.

“Being selected by EWB as the most successful and appropriate project means that their design will hopefully be implemented in the community,” says Inchbold-Busby.

And that, agrees Chuttar, is an incredible prospect for first-year students. “It’s different than just being a regular assessment task that we’re going to get marks out of, here we actually had to use our brains to think of solutions to be applied, and it is so exciting that we could maybe make a real difference.”