NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 18, 2013

Amesbury college student filtering options for clean water

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — An Amesbury resident studying at the University of Maine has won a $10,000 grant for his research on water filters and will travel to Honduras in June to help bring clean water to an impoverished region of the country.

Bryer Sousa, a UMaine freshman majoring in chemistry and physics with a minor in mathematics, was awarded the Projects for Peace grant from the Davis Foundation last week to install biosand water filters in 50 households in the rural Trojes region of Honduras.

Sousa is among a team of 17 students, scientists and engineers traveling on the trip, which is being run by Pure Water for the World and Water for ME, a nonprofit Maine organization focused on clean water system research and implementation.

Beside helping the local families, the project will also provide Sousa with additional data for his efforts to create a more sustainable water-filtration system for underdeveloped countries using nanofibrillated cellulose.

“I’ve never been outside of the country, so I’m hoping to gain a lot of in-field experience and an idea of what the culture is like so I can help in the future,” Sousa said.

Since shortly after he first arrived on campus, Sousa has been collaborating with a team of UMaine chemistry professors, graduate students and some Bangor High School chemistry students to research water filters made with nanofibrillated cellulose, which could prove to be a cheaper and more effective filtration option for developing countries.

Nanofibrillated cellulose, for the record, is a naturally occurring nanomaterial that can be extracted from plant matter, and a water filter that uses it could conceivably cost only $20 per filter.

“The best way to put it is it’s a biodegradable, sustainable, naturally extracted polymer,” Sousa said.

Such a filter would be sustainable, environmentally friendly, biodegradable and much cheaper than concrete or plastic biosand filters, which usually cost around $75, Sousa said. One of the main benefits of such a filter beside the cost is that they could be produced within the developing countries that use them, and they wouldn’t leave dangerous chemicals behind when they eventually break down.

Right now the cellulose filters are still in the testing phase, which is why Sousa will be installing plastic biosand filters for this trip.

“This group (Pure Water for the World) has implemented biosand filters before and it’s something I would drink from myself,” Sousa said in a press release announcing the grant.

When conditions allow, Sousa and his group will also take water samples to see how effectively the existing filters are working, which will help them as they try to develop new, better filters back in Maine.

“On average, 5,400 people die every day due to lack of clean water, and most filters that are out there today cost a lot of money and aren’t biodegradable,” Sousa said. “With our filters, since they’re biodegradable, they won’t affect the environment by leaving chemicals behind when they break apart.”