Research & Innovation

Stevens Seniors Build Portable Water Backpack for Disaster Areas

Though water is seemingly everywhere, it's not always safe to drink, especially in disaster areas after earthquakes and hurricanes. Victims in disaster areas are often prone to waterborne diseases if they drink from a contaminated supply. 

A team of Stevens students has been working on a handy device to solve that problem, and they're going to present to it the university during the Stevens Innovation Expo on April 24.

Seven graduating seniors under the name AquaNOW – Mechanical Engineering majors Seung kook Burns, Mason Compton, Scott Reardon and Mikelann Scerbo; Electrical Engineering majors Marlon Montoya and Suwen Shen; and Environmental Engineering major Jennifer Wehof – designed and built a solar powered water treatment system that's small enough to fit in a backpack. 

“It's light enough to ensure portability by a single person,” Compton said. “The idea is to provide drinkable water to disaster areas where water is contaminated.” 

The backpack, which weighs roughly 50 pounds compared to other systems that only fit in a truck or a building, includes pumps, filters, a battery and other equipment that work together to purify two gallons of contaminated water per minute. Burns said the team checked the Red Cross guidelines for the amount of water a person needs per day, and said that the backpack can provide drinking water for up to 500 people per day, or for up to 250 people with enough left for cooking, washing and other common uses.

The backpack also avoids the logistical problem of transporting clean water in bottles, which relief organizations sometimes do to make sure victims drink the daily required amount of water. Stockpiling the bottles costs money, shipping the bottles also costs money and might be difficult or even impossible in rough terrain, and the bottles add to landfill waste.

The AquaNOW members have worked on the backpack project since last August, as part of their senior design requirement, but they all had special reasons for volunteering for this particular project.

Compton said he had recently gone on a relief mission to Haiti, which suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 2010 that killed 300,000 people and left one million homeless.

“I thought working on something that would be able to bring the people there clean water would be a great project,” he said.

Burns agreed.

“I thought it was very important that this project has practical implications,” he said.

Civil Engineering Professor Leslie Brunell and Mechanical Engineering Professor Yong Shi advised the students.

The team spent around $1,000 on equipment, not including the backpack itself, which the outdoor apparel company REI donated. The team assembled everything in the Stevens machine shop in the Davidson Lab, under the direction of machinists Bruce Fraser and George Wohlrab.

The students overcame a few challenges, the first being that none of them had any experience building a water treatment unit. Burns said the team conducted deep research on topics such as fluid mechanics.

“We really didn't know anything going in,” he said.

Compton said the team members learned how to blend their diverse disciplinary backgrounds.

“We had to figure out how to distribute work,” he said. “We had to define what each team member would do. Everyone pulled together because we each knew the others were relying on us.”

The team will present the backpack in the startup pitch competition during the Innovation Expo, where it has the chance to win a cash prize. And the AquaNOW members have already impressed one panel of judges. The team participated in a student poster competition during the annual meeting of the New Jersey chapter of the American Water Works Association, and won first place over NJIT, Rider, Rutgers and TCNJ.

Compton said the AWWA judges appreciated the team's presentation.

“One of them was really interested and wanted to follow up with us, which was really encouraging,” he said.

The AquaNOW members think their backpack has a viable market value, with potential customers in the Red Cross, FEMA and other relief agencies.

The students are all either entering the workforce or going to graduate school after they graduate in May, so they won't be able to continue developing the backpack, but they hope a new group of seniors will work on it for their design project next year.

“Hopefully a new group of students will pick up where we left off, and hopefully they can improve upon it,” Scerbo said.