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new technology, natural power | research and creative discovery | Clemson University

new technology, natural power

by Paul Alongi

a clean water project expands in Haiti

A small Haitian village that was hit hard by cholera is getting water and sanitation services for the first time as a group of students design and help build new systems from scratch.

One of the latest projects in Cange, Haiti, is a biodigester that processes potentially dangerous human waste, turning it into fertilizer for banana trees and methane gas that fuels stoves in a communal kitchen. The system includes modern toilets and sinks that would be familiar to anyone in the United States. But after the flush, the waste goes into a series of three biodigester bags behind the building. Microbes in the bags break down the waste, turning it into fertilizer. Collection bags above the biodigester bags capture the methane gas that can be burned as fuel.

Aaron Gordon, a junior civil engineering major who interned for seven months in Haiti, says that the biodigester has replaced pit latrines, making a nearby school and the whole village a safer place, and that the importance to Haitians when it comes to access to this technology cannot be underestimated.

Model of latrine & biodigester - Sonson who hopes to be architect, built the model shown assisted in training villagers on biodigester operation
Sonson hopes to be an architect one day. He built this model of the biodigester and helps the team train other Haitians in biodigester operation. Photo courtesy of David E. Vaughn.

The biodigester is part of a wider commitment to Haiti by Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries. The group installed Haiti’s first chlorinated municipal water system in Cange in 2012 and the first water testing laboratory in the Central Plateau in 2014.

The biodigester system requires no pumps or electricity. The building that houses the toilets was built on the side of a hill, and the roofs are sloped with an opening at the top to create a natural chimney effect for improved ventilation. Skylights provide natural lighting. Gravity keeps the water and effluent flowing.

“At the onset of the project, we realized that we had an unreliable power grid and no money to pay for electricity,” says David Vaughn, a professor of practice of civil engineering and industry adviser to Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries. “We have been able to create a net positive energy system that conforms to international codes and has a 99.98 percent efficacy against known pathogens such as cholera and E. coli.”

Jennifer Ogle, an associate professor of civil engineering, says the Cange biodigester has proven so successful that residents of other communities have asked for their own versions. “We were really excited to see the Haitians asking for these facilities. What we’re trying to do now is figure out the proper proportions and size of the biodigester bags for smaller installations.”

Students in Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries helped design the system and worked with Haitians to build and maintain it.

Clemson’s work in Haiti started when Jeff Plumblee, then a graduate student, crossed paths with the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, which was working to upgrade Cange’s thirty-year-old water system. Plumblee and six other civil engineering students began designing a new water system in 2009.

Only a few months later, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, killing hundreds of thousands of people. While Cange suffered little damage, the population swelled as earthquake survivors migrated to the region in search of medical treatment. A cholera epidemic, hitting the Central Plateau particularly hard, sickened about 680,000 people and killed more than 8,300 across the country. A lack of sanitation and water filtration in Cange and the surrounding villages enabled cholera’s quick spread.

Students and Haitians worked together to finish the water system, installing the third pump in October 2012. It includes a new dam, a filtration building, six miles of piping, eight fountains, two new cisterns and two reconditioned cisterns, all housing more than 200,000 gallons of water.

James Martin, chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering, says, “We’re redefining how civil engineering is taught.”

The concept for the Cange biodigester derived from systems developed by Biobolsa Systems in Mexico City. Research and development was done at the University of Maryland. The project was funded by the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina and done in cooperation with the United States Agency for International Development.

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