Manhattan College Chemical Engineering Students Demonstrate Water Purification System for Underdeveloped Countries

Catholic Relief Services to consider system for use around the world.

According to Catholic Relief Services (CRS), diseases caused by poor water, sanitation and hygiene kill more than 4,000 children a day. In order to beat these odds, nine chemical engineering students at Manhattan College developed a water filtration system and demonstrated the effectiveness of the Sustainable Aqua Filtration Equipment (SAFE) project on March 25 to Peter Kimeu, regional technical director for partnership, solidarity and justice for CRS in East Africa.

Michael Sullivan, a junior chemical engineering major, first presented the SAFE project in January to Kimeu during a Lasallian Outreach Volunteer Experience (L.O.V.E.) trip to Kenya.

“When I saw this technology presented in Kenya by Michael I wanted it, and now after seeing the demonstration at Manhattan, I want it even more back home,” said Kimeu.

With CRS having a presence in more than 90 countries, the SAFE project could bring clean water and improve the sanitation and health of people around the world. The system, which runs on gravity, removes 99.99 percent of dirt and germs and is a collaboration of research conducted by James Patrick Abulencia, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Gennaro J. Maffia, Ph.D., professor of chemical engineering.

Maffia has used collagen nanofibrils for years in biomedical engineering applications, as well as to trap contaminants in water. The collagen comes from the dermis of livestock and is processed into nanofibrils. The dermis is located just below the outer layer of skin and currently has limited commercial applications. The system was beta-tested in the Iloilo province in the Philippines, located in the Western Visayas region, and received glowing reviews from the locals.

In addition, Abulencia developed a way to work with coconut shells as a viable alternative for granulated activated carbon (GAC), which is also used to adsorb contaminants from water and eliminate any residual undesirable odors and color from the purified water. By combining their efforts, the SAFE project evolved naturally in Manhattan’s chemical engineering department.

“I think the demonstration of this water filtration system is one of the most inspiring demonstrations I have seen in along time,” said Sister Arlene Flaherty, OP, justice and peace partnership liaison for CRS NE Mid Atlantic Region. “Students in engineering actually bringing their skills and their care about people in developing countries together into a way that creates a system that will really make a difference in people’s lives.”

The students analyzing and testing the SAFE system will present the unit at the Waste-Management Education & Research Consortium (WERC) competition, an international students’ competition in New Mexico in April, supervised by Abulencia and Maffia. The WERC competition involves three days of water testing, oral and poster presentations and demonstrations, and media briefings. Another Manhattan student, Kathryn Scherpf, a chemical engineering graduate student, has worked with the USDA on biomedical uses for the collagen nanofibrils, and this research was presented at an international conference in Philadelphia on March 28.

Kimeau plans to discuss the unit further with his CRS team when he returns to Kenya with the hopes of bringing it to his country as soon as possible.