Ian Cullings ’20, Yitzy Rosenberg ’21, Marcin Sawzcuk grad, and Kevin Sarmiento grad put their water treatment technology in a head-to-head contest with Cornell water treatment facilities and held their own.

Courtesy of AguaClara

Ian Cullings ’20, Yitzy Rosenberg ’21, Marcin Sawzcuk grad, and Kevin Sarmiento grad put their water treatment technology in a head-to-head contest with Cornell water treatment facilities and held their own.

October 22, 2019

Cornell Project Team Aims for Safer, Cheaper Water With New Gravity-Based Technology

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Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly listed the amount of years Prof. Weber-Shirk has been researching water treatment and the number of AguaClara facilities.

A group of student engineers from the AquaClara project team recently went head-to-head against Cornell facilities with their water filtration technology, powered solely by gravity. And so far, they are not falling behind.

The AguaClara project team was founded by Prof. Monroe Weber-Shirk, civil and environmental engineering, in 2005 to address the lack of sustainable water treatment plants in impoverished communities. Since then, AguaClara has grown to more than 50 undergraduate and graduate students, according to the team’s website.

Weber-Shirk and his team of students have constantly looked for ways of treating water that does not demand external power sources. By studying the physics behind how water is treated, they have developed a treatment technology that treats water using only gravity, according to Yitzy Rosenberg ’21, head of AguaClara’s Investments and Public Relations teams.

“Weber-Shirk has researched the physics behind how water is treated for the past 25 years. By understanding the physics, we as a team has been able to develop certain processes based on the equation that comes out of that physics,” Rosenberg said.

Aside from being gravity-powered and electricity-free, AguaClara facilities have several other unique features. Their filters, which are stacked on top of each other, use approximately one-sixth of the area that is normally necessary for conventional water treatment. As a result, water can filter in from many different angles, rather than just through the bottom as in conventional plants.

Additionally, while some treatment plants need manual help from operators to settle out sediments accumulated at the bottom, AguaClara facilities have a self-cleaning sedimentation system that eliminates this often time-consuming step.

Using research and designs AguaClara develops, local NGO partners have built water treatment plants in countries such as Honduras and India. Currently, there are 20 AguaClara plants in Honduras and two in India.

In order to prove the effectiveness of existing AguaClara plants, the team compared them to Cornell’s own, more conventional water treatment systems.

During the trial run, a smaller-scale of AguaClara’s facility filtered water in parallel to the Cornell water treatment plants, offering team members a consistent basis for comparing performance and quality across the two different systems.

“The Cornell Water filtration team has been super supportive,” Rosenberg said. “The relationship works both ways. It’s a partnership where we are helping each other and learning from each other.”

According to Rosenberg, the analysis, which is still ongoing, has so far produced positive results: Water treated through the AguaClara plant meets U.S. standards, and is similar in quality to water treated by Cornell systems.

“If the results are promising, we can start to ask the question, ‘what can conventional plants do in order to improve their systems?” he said.