InVenture team creates a simple system to keep household water clean in developing countries

Monday, March 14, 2016
 
TruePani's antimicrobial water disinfection system uses a thin layer of copper to keep water clean. The cup's design mimics the shape of those typically found in households throughout rural India, and the lotus flower — a symbol of purity in Indian culture — is attached to a chain so it can be placed in the home's water storage container. (Photo: TruePani)
TruePani's antimicrobial water disinfection system uses a thin layer of copper to keep water clean. The cup's design mimics the shape of those typically found in households throughout rural India, and the lotus flower — a symbol of purity in Indian culture — is attached to a chain so it can be placed in the home's water storage container. The invention is a finalist for the 2016 InVenture Prize, a competition to help Georgia Tech students turn their ideas into commercial ventures. School of Civil and Environmental Engineering seniors Samantha Becker and Shannon Evanchec created the cup after a summer research trip in India, and enlisted the help of friends and business administration majors Sarah Lynn Bowen and Naomi Ergun. The four will compete live at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on GPB TV. Watch online. (Photo: TruePani)

For something like 900 million people in India, access to clean water isn’t the problem.

It’s keeping that water clean once it reaches households.

“$59 billion has been spent bringing clean water to the developing world, but it is all essentially wasted at the point of use,” said Shannon Evanchec, a fifth-year undergraduate studying environmental engineering. “You could pour bottled water into a household cup, drink it, and you’ve just ingested E. coli.”

The culprit? The cup itself — a discovery Evanchec and fifth-year civil engineering student Samantha Becker made last summer during a research trip to the villages around Nagpur, India.

In these communities, running water is available for only an hour or two a day. Sometimes, the tap runs just 15 minutes. The residents must collect and store enough water to last the whole day.

To test the water’s purity, Becker and Evanchec took samples directly from the village’s running tap and from the household storage containers.

 

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Text TruePani to 22333 during the live finals on GPB TV Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

WATCH THE INVENTURE PRIZE FINALS ONLINE

   

One day they decided to pour sterile water from the lab into the common drinking cups found in every home and then test it.

“We were doing these samples, and we realized, why are we pouring the water into a cup first then testing it?” Becker said. “What if the cup is the thing that is getting all of this water dirty?” The results, she said, were startling.

“In 90 percent of the cases, the deionized water that we poured into cups then had enough E. coli to turn our test kits purple, which meant that it had a harmful level,” Becker said.

“The two second interaction with the cup was enough to contaminate it,” Evanchec said.

That seemingly simple discovery led the pair to design a new kind of cup with a thin antimicrobial coating that disinfects water by releasing copper ions. Those ions disrupt the microbes’ cellular functions and kill them. Each cup also comes with a similarly coated metal lotus flower for each home’s water storage container.

Their idea has landed them in the finals for the 2016 InVenture Prize, a competition to find promising technologies that could be commercially successful. Becker and Evanchec, along with teammates Sarah Lynn Bowen and Naomi Ergun, will compete live on GPB TV March 16 in the final round to win $20,000, a spot in a Georgia Tech startup accelerator program, and a free patent filing for their invention. They call themselves TruePani.

Samantha Becker, left, and Shannon Evanchec film a segment about their water purification system ahead of the live-televised finals of the InVenture Prize. Their team, TruePani, will compete with five other finalists for $20,000, a free patent filing, and a place in a Georgia Tech startup incubator at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. (Photo: TruePani)
Samantha Becker, left, and Shannon Evanchec film a segment about their water purification system ahead of the live-televised finals of the InVenture Prize. Their team, TruePani, will compete with five other finalists for $20,000, a free patent filing, and a place in a Georgia Tech startup incubator at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. Watch online here. (Photo: TruePani)
 

“There’s a lot of examples of technologies that people develop in the U.S. and think, wow, this is great let me take it over to rural village,” Evanchec said. “It isn’t developed with the end user in mind, so it doesn’t really work. “

“Our main goal in designing our product was for it to be something that we could incorporate into [people’s] daily lives that would require little to no behavior change at all.”

The group accomplishes that by making the cup the same shape as the ones found in virtually every home. They said the lotus flower is viewed as a symbol of purity in Indian culture, so they have a better chance of convincing people to place the metal flower in their water storage container.

WHAT DOES "TRUEPANI" MEAN?

Here’s how the group explains it on Facebook:

“We spent the summer of 2015 in rural India, collecting water samples from households. When arriving in the villages, “pani check!” could be heard as locals prepared drinking water samples for our researchers to take back to the lab.

“‘Pani’ is the Hindi word for water.”

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“We are really focused on designing with the culture instead of for a culture,” Evanchec said, noting that preliminary lab tests show their design starts working almost immediately.

“With microbial concentrations similar to the drinking water in India, we saw a dramatic reduction in the number of colonies,” she said. “We compared our results to the World Health Organization standards and found that, after four to six hours, the risk was reduced from dangerous levels [of bacteria] to reasonable [water] quality.”

The other good news for TruePani is that people in these rural communities want clean water. Becker said many families spend the equivalent of $5 a month cleaning their water — adding chlorine or using filtration, for example. It’s a significant chunk of their income, which averages around $41 a month.

“Our motto is keeping clean water clean,” she said. “We want to reduce the amount of contamination within the household.”

Though their sanitation system was inspired by Becker and Evanchec’s experiences in India, they said similar communities with poor sanitation around the world could benefit. All they have to do is perhaps redesign the shape of the cup and the lotus flower to fit into the cultural norms of other places.

More immediately, they said the hope to go back to India and test their current design to see if it works they way they expect. Then they could find a partner in the country to manufacture the cups.

“The cups we are making are the same shape as the cups people currently use. Maybe we could contact the manufacturer and do the deposition of copper in a factory in India,” Becker said. “Hopefully this would create jobs.”

But first up: winning the InVenture Prize, which could set them on the path to making all of this a reality.

“We have to explain the culture of India,” Becker said. “Why do you need a antimicrobial cup? You need to explain that we can’t just tell these people, you need to clean your cups better. That is a cultural and behavioral change.”

“We want to make sure we distinguish ourselves,” Evanchec said, “[so] people don’t think we are just another water purification technology.”