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CCEE Faculty and Students Solve Global Environmental Problems

Posted May 27, 2015

This article appeared originally in the NC State Engineering Magazine.

Tackling important global environmental and health problems takes the work of engineers, and NC State engineering faculty members and students are doing their part. From providing adequate sanitation for millions, to figuring out ways for people in impoverished areas to prepare food without sacrificing health, NC State engineers in Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering are embracing the university’s Think and Do attitude to solve problems in the developing world.

An NC State Engineers Without Borders student works to assemble a gutter to a roof during a project in Bolivia
An NC State Engineers Without Borders student works to assemble a gutter to a roof during a project in Bolivia

The human right that no one talks about

Celebrities often lend a hand to raise awareness about global health issues like access to clean water or HIV/AIDS prevention.

Talking about how we defecate, though, can be a different story, according to Dr. Francis de los Reyes, professor in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering (CCEE)and University Faculty Scholar.

“The reality is the sanitation side has not gotten the same exposure, the same push into the public consciousness,” de los Reyes said.

Access to adequate sanitation is a basic human right, de los Reyes says, but not a comfortable one to discuss.

The UN estimates that 2.5 billion people – a third of the global population – lack access to adequate sanitation like toilets or latrines. Of those, about 1 billion defecate in the open.

Open defecation is a huge environmental issue in developing countries and leads to a host of human health problems, including preventable diarrheal diseases that the UN estimates kill a child every 2-1/2 minutes.

“If you’re living in fecal matter, you’re going to get sick,” de los Reyes said.

As part of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN has called for an end to open defecation by 2030.

The UN defines adequate sanitation as access to a pit latrine on a concrete slab – a setup that provides separation between the waste and user.

Too often, the pits fill up and people begin to defecate on the floor or on the ground outside. Emptying the pits is a dirty, dangerous and undignified job that often requires crawling inside with no protective clothing or equipment.

Graduate student Tate Rogers and de los Reyes developed the Pit Excrevator, an auger that can empty a pit from the surface. The project has undergone tests in the field and is undergoing further development.

De los Reyes envisions an open source model that would allow the technology to be used by people who want to turn pit emptying into a business.

Solving the sanitation issue will be complex. Simply spending billions of dollars to install Western-style flush toilets in the developing world simply isn’t feasible. There isn’t enough money. Or water.

The solutions go beyond technology, and include cultural and policy components.

“We’ve got to rethink sanitation,” de los Reyes argues. “We’ve got to reinvent the sanitation infrastructure.”

Dr. Francis de los Reyes works with a prototype of the Excrevator in the lab
Dr. Francis de los Reyes works with a prototype of the Excrevator in the lab


A club that works

Members of the NC State student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) are working in Bolivia and Sierra Leone to provide access to clean water and renewable energy.

EWB work starts with communities around the world identifying a need for engineering skills to help complete projects that will make a difference. Student chapters then apply for these projects and later visit the communities to assess need, build infrastructure and check whether existing infrastructure can be improved.

But there’s a lot of hard work to be done at home before those visits can happen.

There’s project planning and implementation. Seeking out engineering professionals as mentors. Ensuring that the projects meet U.S. standards. Planning a trip to one of the countries and getting the necessary equipment there.The chapter’s student officers say it’s a rewarding club to join, and also one that means a lot of work.

The chapter first made contacts in the Asanquiri community in Bolivia in 2005 and identified a need for clean drinking water and a way to store it. Students have been working there since to improve a rainwater catchment system and increase storage capacity.

At the LemonAid Village Schools in Lower Allentown, Sierra Leone, students are working to develop a solar energy system for the school to provide a reliable power source and a mechanically bored well for clean drinking water.

Trips to Bolivia and Sierra Leone are planned this year, though travel bans related to the Ebola outbreak in Africa are complicating the prospects for a visit to the LemonAid Village Schools.


Dr. Andrew Grieshop works with students in the lab
Dr. Andrew Grieshop works with students in the lab

A safer way to cook

For billions of people in India, Africa and other parts of the developing world, cooking means an open fire inside the home. Fuel for these fires is wood, leaves, coal, crop cuttings or dung.

Ventilation is often poor. Because the smoke rises, it helps to crouch down, but only so much. The walls of the home are often black with soot.

“It can be like having a campfire in your house,” Dr. Andrew Grieshop, assistant professor in CCEE, said. “If you are standing there, your eyes will water.”

Breathing in that smoke causes health problems, from pneumonia in children to cardiovascular disease and cancer. The emissions have also been identified as a major contributor to global climate change.

Grieshop, who is also the faculty advisor for the NC State EWB chapter, developed technology that accurately measures the emissions from these stoves, both directly above the flame but also inside the home. He has done field tests in homes in India and is working with graduate students on more accurate ways to reproduce the same conditions in an on-campus laboratory.

It’s research that could help lead to better cook stoves and more information on how the emissions from current uses impact human health and the environment.

New cook stove technology, including advanced stoves that burn biomass, is being developed. There is also a push to enhance the use of liquefied petroleum gas (propane) in poor settings. The challenges include determining which approaches work best, making them affordable for a population living in extreme poverty and changing cultural norms that have been in place for generations.

Grieshop is part of a group in the Triangle working on the problem that includes people from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, the Environmental Protection Agency, RTI International and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

“It’s a tough set of problems to have to navigate in terms of the technology and the social aspect as well as the financial aspect and the fuel,” he said. “My hope is that people don’t expect a miracle fix.”