Sustainability Project Sparks New Collaborations


Two student organizations are combining their know-how and dedication to service to create more sustainable households and improve water quality in Mali, Africa.

The Iowa State student chapters of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and Material Advantage (MA) recently received a $5,000 grant from The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS) Foundation in support of the project “Ceramics Production for Water Filtration, Cooking Stoves, and Sustainable Households.”

With the funding, the student team plans to improve the weather resistance of buildings during the rainy season, develop technologies that will provide the local village with safe, sustainable water, and fire insulating bricks for cooking stoves to reduce harmful smoke and fuel use.

Expanding students’ horizons

This collaboration is the first between TMS, a professional organization encompassing the entire range of materials science and engineering, and EWB, a group that develops and implements sustainability projects worldwide.

The project inspired a unique partnership on campus as well. “Several EWB are in MA, too, but typically the groups have separate activities,” explains Andrew Havens, a senior in mechanical engineering and EWB project leader.

MA helps students learn more about materials science and engineering by creating personal, professional, and academic connections. Remarkably, the chapter at Iowa State has been named the nation’s most outstanding chapter for six consecutive years. Through their knowledge of raw materials, Havens says, these students will be important assets to the team.

His point is easy to see when you consider that the project is primarily a materials one. The team plans to use clays found in Mali to improve building materials for homes as well as a kiln that will be used to fire ceramic water filters and bricks for clean, fuel-efficient stoves.

Emily Kuster, a junior in materials engineering and president of MA, is excited about the opportunities the project will provide to members. “We don’t often get to see how our work can be implemented in a poverty-stricken world,” she says. “We’re expanding our horizons a bit, and it’s a great way for us to help other students learn more about our discipline.”

Laying the groundwork in Ames

The team has a lot to accomplish before it sends four students and a faculty member to Africa at the end of May.

At this point, the plan is to develop several kiln designs in Ames, tapping into a variety of resources including the Creative Artists’ Studio of Ames and others in the community who have built kilns for pottery in the past. Additionally, the group will need to create presses that can be used to form water filters and two different kinds of bricks.

“We want to have the presses completely done here with interchangeable molds so we can take the components with us and get started as soon as we get on location,” Havens says.

The students will complete some testing in Ames on the materials used to create the kilns, as well as the products they are going to make inside the kilns. However, due to potential variations in materials, they won’t be able to finalize a formula for a composite until they get to Africa.

While it’s admittedly a lot to tackle in a semester, the team has a slight advantage that might explain why it has set its goals so high. Several EWB members have worked in Mali on past projects, so the group has quite a bit of knowledge about the environment there, as well as the resources available to them. And because EWB makes five-year commitments to development projects, the group will return to Mali at least once a year to assess the project and make adjustments as needed.

‘A gratifying experience’

To meet the grant’s requirements, the team will share its experience at the 2010 Materials Science & Technology Conference & Exposition. MA students attend the conference every year and will prove instrumental with that piece of the project as well.

“We are grateful to have received the grant, and the projects we are working on are going to make a difference in the long run,” Havens says. “Students appreciate taking their technical skills and putting them back into something that’s going to help other people. It’s a humbling and gratifying experience.”

[Editor’s note: Read more about the work of Iowa State student engineers in developing nations in “A World of Difference” in the fall 2009 issue of Innovate.]

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