Rice undergrads make tasty water for rural Mexico

Team H^3 uses local materials to remineralize school drinking water

The key to providing schoolchildren in rural Mexico with an endless supply of tasty drinking water could lie in using readily available materials like locally quarried limestone.

That’s the conclusion of Team H^3, four Rice University undergraduates who are working with nonprofit Cantaro Azul Foundation to improve the taste of rainwater at more than a dozen schools in Chiapas, Mexico.

“Adding minerals to the water would not only improve the taste but could also improve the nutritional value,” said Rohan Bhardwaj, a sophomore cognitive sciences major from the team.

H^3 is short for “hydration, hardness and health.” Team member Ricardo Lozoya, a sophomore biochemistry major, said the technical side of the challenge — designing a system to add minerals to water — wasn’t the most difficult part of the problem.

“There are devices that could be installed to do this today, but they’re often expensive, complex or require parts that aren’t available in Chiapas,” Lozoya said.

Team H^3

Team H^3 is (from left) Rohan Bhardwaj, Caroline Brigham, Ricardo Lozoya and JaeJoon Lee.

“Often, what you find is that donated systems work until they break, and then they’re abandoned,” said team member JaeJoon Lee, a senior civil and environmental engineering major.

H^3’s task was to come up with a sustainable option, a low-cost, easy-to-maintain system that Chiapas communities would be likely to embrace and use for many years.

The team’s design involves pumping filtered rainwater through a hard plastic container filled with crushed stone to impart minerals from the stone to the water.

One of the team’s ideas was to use crushed limestone from the Chiapas area.

“We’re also using a canister that’s already used in another part of the rainwater filtration system,” said team member Caroline Brigham, a senior architecture major.

Team H^3 schematic

The team’s design involves pumping filtered rainwater through a hard plastic container filled with crushed stone to impart minerals from the stone to the water.

H^3’s project was a class assignment for Sustainable Water Purification for the Developing World, an elective that’s cross-listed by three Rice degree programs — bioengineering, global health and civil and environmental engineering. The course was added to Rice’s catalog last year as part of the educational component of Rice’s Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) center, the first National Science Foundation-funded Engineering Research Center in Houston. NEWT is developing compact, mobile, off-grid water-treatment systems that can provide clean water to millions of people who lack it and to make U.S. energy production more sustainable and cost-effective.

Course instructor Jorge Loyo, a lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said H^3 and three other teams in the semester-long class worked at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen to develop prototypes for Cantaro Azul Foundation. Loyo said NEWT plans to work with the foundation to test and improve technologies that could eventually be widely deployed in Chiapas.

“The foundation has an excellent water disinfection program that integrates technical solutions with communication strategies to impact and strengthen local water management,” Loyo said.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.