Technology flows from PSU to Rwanda

There are about 2.5 billion people living on Earth who lack access to proper sanitation, and 783 million people do not have access to safe, clean drinking water, according to UNICEF. Portland State’s SWEETLab is doing something about it.

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There are about 2.5 billion people living on Earth who lack access to proper sanitation, and 783 million people do not have access to safe, clean drinking water, according to UNICEF.

Portland State’s SWEETLab is doing something about it.

Organizations like MercyCorps and the U.S. Agency for International Development aim to improve living conditions in developing countries, but they could be more successful, said Dr. Evan Thomas, the director of the lab and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at PSU.

“But they need better information on what is working and what is not,” he said.

Through the use of digital instruments, SWEETLab is helping to improve data collection in developing countries, Thomas said.

Two years ago, SWEETLab, an acronym for the Sustainable Water, Energy and Environmental Technologies Laboratory, was created when Thomas and a small group of graduate students started working to provide quantitative data on the efficiency of clean technologies used in countries such as Rwanda and Indonesia.

“Our main goal is to provide improvement in living standards in resource-constrained environments,” said Zdenek Zumr, a graduate student and full-time engineer for SWEETLab.

The current focus of SWEETLab is the distribution of cookstoves and water filters in Rwanda. “The goal is to distribute 6,000 of each,” Zumr said.

By providing communities and households with clean technologies such as cookstoves, which don’t rely on fossil fuels or water filters and replace carbon-producing methods such as boiling water, SWEETLab is not only improving living conditions but also helping fight global warming.

The use of firewood for cooking leaves high levels of toxic carbon monoxide inside the small rooms generally used for the task, which can be detrimental to the health of the inhabitants of that home.

Also, by providing families and larger communities, such as schools, with new and efficient water filters, disease and deaths related to unclean water decrease.

During a pilot project in Rwanda, 2,500 water filters were distributed; a filter’s average lifespan will provide safe drinking water for a family of four for up to three years, Zumr said.

Attached to the cookstoves and water filters are sensors developed by SWEETLab, called SWEETSense. These sensors can be designed to pick up many different types of data, depending on the need. Levels of carbon monoxide, temperature and air quality are only a few of the data samples collected.

The sensors can relay data on the usage of the new clean technologies to determine whether the distribution of stoves and water filters is effectively improving living conditions.

According to Thomas, using sensors to gauge usage is far more reliable than previous efforts. “Sensors are better than surveys, which can be biased,” he said.

Because clean technologies such as the cookstove and water filter allow for reduced use of fossil fuels, a form of carbon-credit financing has been developed. Reductions in carbon output become carbon credits, which can be sold to industries in order to offset that industry’s emissions. That money made from carbon-credit sales then fuels the development of more clean technologies.

The use of the relatively new cloud computer system enables sensors to pick up data in remote areas and upload it directly to a computer anywhere in the world.

“In the past, you had to deploy the instrument, then go back and get the data, all in person,” Zumr said. “It was slower and much more expensive. Now it is easy, with the Internet.”

For those unfamiliar with the term “cloud,” it refers to a type of computer space available for rent. Comparing the cloud computer system to U-Haul’s rental truck system, Zumr said, “You get what you need to get the job done. [You] pay for the use of the truck, but you don’t go out and buy a new moving truck.”

The concept is the same for the cloud, in which one pays for the computer space but doesn’t have to set up an entirely new system. Another benefit of using the cloud is that the data collected is filtered and formed into graphs and charts through the cloud’s system, and made available for members with the right password to view from anywhere in the world.

The sensors have been so successful that in July 2012, SWEETSense Inc. became an official company, owned by PSU. The sensors are manufactured locally.

Michel Maupoux, of the local company Green Empowerment, was at the lab Wednesday to discuss troubleshooting techniques, and said that his company decided to work with SWEETLab because of their competitive bid.

Zumr feels one reason SWEETLab is unique among labs is how rapidly the work is done. “Our team is small and dynamic, and so our results are quick,” he said. “Instead of six months, we’ll do 30 days.”

Beyond benefiting humanity, the student employees involved are also experiencing personal gain.

“I have a job I like to do; it is a really fun place. I have a [creative] streak and I get to live it out to the max,” Zumr said.

Zumr pointed out that his work is important because “ultimately, carbon emissions and global warming will affect all of us.”