Science Wednesday: Need Effective Virus Removal? Try Rust.

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By Ian Bradley

What if, in addition to earning a degree from a top-ranked engineering program, you could actually change the lives of several million people? With the help of the EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet Award (P3), students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are doing just that.

For several years, the Mayan community of Socorro, Guatemala was afflicted with acute and chronic gastrointestinal diseases stemming from poor drinking water quality, soil-transmitted helminthes (worm) infections, and malnutrition. These illnesses resulted in missed school, emotional and economic hardship, and in some cases, death.

In an attempt to alleviate this crisis, the people of Socorro assembled a council and, with the help of Wuqu’ Kawoq, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization, contacted the University of Illinois Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UIUC) requesting assistance. As a result of a three-year partnership, relief has come in the form of a simple, effective, and ever-evolving water treatment system: the biosand filter (BSF).

BSFs have been chosen by hundreds of humanitarian groups as the best method for improving water quality in developing countries and, as of 2009, it is estimated that over 300,000 BSFs have been implemented in over 70 countries. Surveys reveal its wide acceptance by users due to the improved appearance, smell, and taste of the treated water. However, research has identified a critical shortcoming: BSFs are not highly effective in removing viruses.

Current research performed at the University of Illinois has shown that the incorporation of iron shavings, a product available commercially across the world, can remove more than 99.999% of viruses in water. The iron rusts, forming positively charged oxides to which negatively charged viruses attach. Because of the water chemistry, the iron doesn’t re-enter the water and the user never tastes the iron in the filtered water. The only end result is cleaner, safer drinking water.

In 2009, students from the University of Illinois completed a P3-supported project to install 120 traditional BSFs in Socorro. Over the next two years, the research is being expanded with the help of partners such as the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG) to bring iron-amended filters to those in need.

For little cost and effort, currently implemented BSFs could be amended with locally available iron sources, providing a substantially improved barrier against waterborne viruses and, hopefully, bringing relief to millions of people in the process.

See winning projects at the National Sustainable Design Expo, April 16 and 17, 2011 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

About the author: Ian Bradley is an environmental engineering graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has been working with EWB-UIUC and The Guatemala Water Project for the last three years.

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