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St. Francis alum helps create bike-powered water purifier

 

Clean, accessible water may be something most Bay Area residents take for granted, but not Matt LoGrasso. LoGrasso, a recent graduate of Santa Clara University and St. Francis High School in Mountain View, worked with three other mechanical engineering students on the yearlong project to devise a bicycle-powered system to produce potable water, called Pedal for Purification.

They spent months planning and sketching, and then building component parts in Santa Clara University's machine shop.

The device, which uses an adult-sized bicycle for the main function, consists of five subsystems. Each member of the team worked on a different subsystem and produced multiple iterations before settling on the final design. The total cost of building the product is $576, which is much cheaper 91.27%, to be exact than the market rate for a comparable product, LoGrasso said.

After considering places in the United States that may have served as a potential testing location for their pump, the group set its sights on international issues of water accessibility, LoGrasso said. A professor familiar with the Guatemalan-based organization Maya Pedal recommended the country for testing the prototype.

LoGrasso said that the team was committed to building a prototype that would impact real people. They established project goals for the level of water purification, the time it took to purify water, the universality of the design and the overall cost.

In April, they traveled to San Andres Itzapa, Guatemala, where they spent 10 days completing the construction of the bicycle device with the assistance of Maya Pedal employees and local volunteers.

"Don't try to reinvent the wheel," LoGrasso said, noting the tendency many Americans have to provide new products and services to communities with systems in place that could simply be improved upon, which was the case with Maya Pedal.

Pedro Hernandez-Ramos, a Santa Clara University professor who chaperoned the students in Guatemala, said that Maya Pedal representatives were "appreciative of the fact that these students who had no connection to Guatemala were creative enough and had enough goodwill to think about offering their services."

Maya Pedal, which outfits bikes to perform a number of everyday duties, such as grinding or threshing grains and corn, powering a blender, shelling nuts and depulping coffee beans, is an offshoot of the Canada-based PEDAL, according to its website.

The device was tested in Patzun, located near San Andres Itzapa, and the group could see that their product had an immediate impact on the typically murky-brown water.

LoGrasso said that when the group first arrived to Patzun and asked for a glass of water, their hosts offered them Coke, which is synonymous with water. The soda is cheaper and more accessible than water, and tastes better than water from available water systems. It's reported that 54% of the water supply in Guatemala is "at high and imminent risk for human health," according to the World Bank.

Hernandez-Ramos said that Americans are used to getting clean water from the tap and that it may seem inconceivable that anyone would lack access to such a foundational resource.

Guatemala, which is the most populous country in Central America, has a poverty rate over 50%, according to the World Bank. Of its 16.9 million citizens, 40% do not have access to clean drinking water in their homes, according to Water for People, an organization whose mission is to ensure that every person in the world has access to clean drinking water.

Developing ways to purify water from wells and local bodies of water is critical for a country that is suffering through one of the worst droughts in decades. According to the World Health Organization, the Guatemalan government provides little support when it comes to maintaining water retrieval systems and providing sustained access to water for those living in rural communities, which account for 49% of the country's population.

"(It was) a beautiful thing to see how this system would positively influence this community's lives," said Hernandez-Ramos. Because the students chose to donate their intellectual capital for free, LoGrasso and his team members recently were awarded Santa Clara University's 2019 Humanitarian Award for their work, Hernandez-Ramos said.

LoGrasso said that he learned the significance of building technology that aims to tackle social problems and that can potentially make a difference in someone's day-to-day life.

"When making products in the future, it's important to keep in mind (the) people who will use the product," LoGrasso said.

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