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Volume 3, Issue 2
December 2010

Research and Collaboration Combine to Provide Clean, Affordable Water

  • Ted Loudon, Ph.D., P.E.
  • Professor Emeritus
  • Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
  • College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • College of Engineering

Ted Loudon is an irrigation engineer by training. Much of his career focused on water quality impacts from livestock operations, including technologies for improving the quality of water before it is discharged back to the soil or to drainfields. As a research-active professor emeritus, Dr. Loudon now applies his expertise toward water purification research and training to people across the world who do not have access to clean, affordable water.

Photograph for Research and Collaboration Combine to Provide Clean, Affordable Water

During the last 10-15 years, he worked with domestic wastewater treatment systems in small communities in developing countries. While in Vietnam he came into contact with a Seattle organization that provided water purification in rural schools and medical facilities. People in these communities made less than $2.00 per day and lived in basic shelters with little to no clean drinking water.

Dr. Loudon learned that the challenge was to not only build water purification systems in underdeveloped areas and train local residents how to maintain them, but to do so with little or no need to transport materials into the community.

Development of Water Purification Systems

Historically, researchers in this field developed household style units, which were shipped in or where materials were shipped to the region, and then the systems were constructed in local shops. One design included concrete containers with bio-sand filters. The units cost around $100 each, and some of that cost was for transporting the heavy supplies. Over the years, the heavy concrete was gradually replaced by plastic, making them lighter, yet still durable.

In 2005, a Michigan-based non-profit organization called Aqua Clara International (ACI) was founded, with an international mission to "provide cheap, clean water for those who make less that $2 per day." Aqua Clara was founded by Dr. Robert McDonald, a former Dow Chemical Company executive who spent a part of his career in low income countries where he observed the need for clean water. Through study of well known disinfectant processes he decided to use metals to add to the disinfectant properties of bio-sand filters.

When Dr. Loudon became involved in ACI in 2008, his research activities contributed to additional understanding of the bio-sand filter processes and removal of biological contaminants from water. Together with Dr. McDonald he is working on processes to remove other environmental contaminates using low cost, simple methods. Another challenge was to customize the process by implementing specific training so that local residents can maintain a sustainable clean water system.

"The research involves developing methods that are simple and sustainable, with a long life. Pathogenic organism detection in water purification is still not perfect, but we are improving all the time. The key is to give people the tools that aide them in follow through with sampling and testing," says Loudon. "When these systems are built correctly, and used correctly, over 90 percent of the units can attain World Health Organization standards for acceptable clean water."

Applied Research at MSU's Bioeconomy Institute

Dr. Loudon was granted laboratory space for Aqua Clara related work at MSU's Bioeconomy in Holland, Michigan after the facility was donated by Pfizer, Inc., and reopened in spring 2009. The facility allows for more controlled testing, such as determining how different physical configurations of bio-sand systems affect the purification process. He oversees Michigan State University and Hope College students in the lab, where he is able to blend his past research with new applications.

"It is a wonderful facility, with a tremendous amount of lab and bench space, and hoods, making it possible to expand the program with biologically-based products and testing," said Loudon.

Aqua Clara International now offers a purifier system that is assembled by local craftspeople with local materials. Each purifier can be constructed from PVC pipe and HDPE plastic containers of whatever type is locally available, in most cases for less than $15. The system meets World Health Organization guidelines, purifies in a reliable process that requires no electricity or moving parts, and is built from local materials, by local crafters, using simple tools. The purifier systems can also be manufactured, sold and serviced by local entrepreneurs, which contributes to building the local economy.

"World Health statistics estimate that approximately 20 percent of the present global population consumes foul water, and the ingestion of contaminated water kills one child in five before the age of five. We are so appreciative of the research work that Ted Loudon conducts at the Bioeconomy Institute, because it means we are able to carry out our purpose with greater knowledge and impact," says Dr. McDonald.

Aqua Clara International maintains that effective bio-sand filters can be constructed from a variety of materials in a variety of shapes and sizes, allowing productive and effective water purifying solutions to local communities. Dr. Loudon has begun performance evaluations to compare Aqua Clara International units with major alternative bio-sand filter systems. No such data base currently exists, and the research will provide useful data for future ACI projects. Personnel from the Centers for Disease Control are participating in the oversight of this work.

From Research to Application

"The key is to partner with local leaders where water purity is compromised, conduct training sessions that transfer the know-how to those local residents, create locally owned micro-businesses, and empower everyone to move forward using the techniques they have learned. Then the community, and their ability to provide their citizens with clean water at a low cost, is sustainable in a longer term scenario," says Dr. McDonald.

Once testing is completed at the lab in the MSU Bioeconomy Institute, it is ready for beta sites in the field. Dr. Loudon helps deploy filters in areas such as Afghanistan, Laos, Thailand, and Kenya. Soon, he will add Ghana to the list. There doesn't seem to be an end to the need for more research – or Dr. Loudon's enthusiasm for collaborating with people in Michigan and across the globe to find solutions to one of the world's most pressing problems.

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Marcia Buck, Aqua Clara International