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Art education and engineering produce ceramic filters to combat water crisis

B. Stephen Carpenter II uses a portable filter press made by engineering students.
March 10, 2015

A game-changer. That’s what Penn State art education professor B. Stephen Carpenter II calls the approximately 50-pound portable filter press designed by engineering students during the spring 2014 semester. The A-frame-like contraption, small enough to fit in a suitcase, produces ceramic water filters that, simply but significantly, make unsafe water potable.

According to water.org, a nonprofit committed to providing access to safe water for all, 750 million people around the world -- more than twice the population of the United States -- don’t have access to clean water. Carpenter wants to help change that, using his experience as a ceramic artist and educator to raise awareness of the issue and show how easily -- and inexpensively -- we can take action.

“Access to clean water is among the most important human rights issues,” he said. “My efforts to address the issue are motivated by my background in the arts. Artists see the world through their own perspective, and create responses to the world based on that perspective.”

B. Stephen Carpenter II

Carpenter’s creation in response to the global water crisis is Reservoir Studio, a physical studio and conceptual space where participants learn how to make ceramic water filters, and discuss the how’s, why’s and next steps. Inside the studio, located in the basement of the Arts Cottage on the University Park campus, is a 500 plus-pound filter press that, while capable of producing water filters, is not easily transportable -- especially to communities that are most at risk.

That’s where the engineering students come in. Last spring, five mechanical engineering undergraduates spent the semester designing Carpenter’s “game-changer” as a project for the College of Engineering’s Learning Factory, which provides students practical hands-on experience through client-based capstone design projects. Chris Guzman, Josh Lashbrook, Anthony Pomorski, Sean Rooney and Brad Scott’s inexpensive, portable filter press -- developed with guidance from instructor Tiffany Camp -- won awards for best design and best poster at the Learning Factory’s design showcase at the end of the semester.

Carpenter first learned how to make ceramic water filters eight years ago from Richard Wukich, who had been his undergraduate adviser at Slippery Rock University. When the filters -- made of sawdust, clay and water -- are fired in a kiln, the sawdust burns out, leaving a porous pot that traps 95 percent of disease-causing microorganisms. Add colloidal silver -- a natural antimicrobial -- to the mix, and the filter’s effectiveness increases to at least 99 percent.

“This approach to clean water is magical, but there’s no illusion,” said Carpenter. “The power is in the simplicity. We see people creating high-tech expensive solutions to many different problems. These filters cost about $25 to make and can last up to five years. I think that’s a pretty cool response to people dying [from unsafe water].”

Ideally, according to Carpenter, new water filter production facilities are built in coordination with potters or brick makers who have knowledge and access to existing clay supplies, equipment and kilns, such as Ibukunoluwa Ayoola, a well-known Nigerian potter who visited Penn State in January. The missing piece of equipment is the filter press. Shipping a full-sized press to locations where new facilities are being planned is expensive. Building a new press on the spot saves money but takes time. Because the newly designed press can be transported easily, demonstrations of the filter production process can happen during initial visits to communities in need. The portable press can be used at the facility until the full-sized press is built.

The portable filter press is one of the first steps toward making clean water -- inexpensive, accessible clean water -- a reality in communities that need it. Through Reservoir Studio’s connection with Potters Water Action Group, a network of potters committed to combatting the global water crisis by creating water filters and working to establish water filter production facilities, E. H. Schwab Co., a Pittsburgh-area metal spinning and stamping company, is making minor revisions to the Penn State students’ design in order to make the press even more efficient and portable. Next steps include designing and building other portable filter production equipment, such as a clay mixer and a hammer mill.

Carpenter, who frequently visits schools and universities to discuss water filters and conduct demonstrations of the filter production process, noted that the portable equipment will support the education and curriculum aspects of Reservoir Studio. He is partnering with educators at the K–12 level, collecting examples of how they are using ceramic water filters in their classrooms to discuss the global water crisis.

In addition, he recently received a grant from Penn State’s Africana Research Center to work with high school art teachers in predominantly African American schools to develop and implement an arts-based curriculum about the ceramic water filters within the context of the global water crisis and the African Diaspora.

“A key aim of the project is to enable African-American students, their classmates and their teachers to situate themselves critically within the African Diaspora by way of direct exploration of the global water crisis through artistic, scholarly and socially engaged practices,” said Carpenter.

According to Carpenter, the driving force behind his work is the simple fact that waterborne diseases keep kids out of school “If you’re sick, you can’t go to school. If you take away that element of danger by making available clean, safe drinking water, you start to change notions of education in communities,” he explained. “If people no longer have to spend a majority of each day traveling great distances to obtain potable water, the dynamics of living change, allowing individuals to focus on providing a better, healthier life for themselves and their families.”

Carpenter’s work has the potential to impact millions, from the people worldwide who benefit from the water filters to his fellow educators who join the fight against the global water crisis.

“When it comes down to it, though, I’m just an art guy making pots that clean water,” he said. “If an art guy can make a difference in someone’s life, it’s a good day.”

This story was originally published as part of the Centre Daily Times' "Focus on Research" series.

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