Penn Senior Adrian Lievano to Tackle Water Security in Kenya

By Madeleine Stone @themadstone       

(This is the second in a series of features introducing the inaugural Penn President’s Engagement Prize winners.)  

Building prosthetic limbs and developing rain-water filtration systems may seem like they have nothing in common. But to Adrian Lievano, a University of Pennsylvania senior from Miami majoring in mechanical engineering and applied mechanics, there’s a synergy: In both cases, the user is the designer’s top priority.

“When we’re designing prosthetics for a child, aesthetics, cost and comfort are the most important criteria,” Lievano says. “When it comes to water filtration, we have to bear in mind the culture we’re designing the system for. If it’s not culturally acceptable, it won’t be sustainable.”

Lievano is now applying the user-oriented approach he’s learned designing prosthetic limbs to tackle water security in the rural village of Kimana, Kenya, where access to clean drinking water is a daily struggle. As a 2015 recipient of the President’s Engagement Prize at Penn, Lievano, along with fellow senior Matthew Lisle, will design and implement a sustainable rain-water catchment and filtration system using inexpensive and locally-sourced materials.

The President’s Engagement Prizes, the largest of their kind in higher education, provide winners with as much as $100,000 to support project implementation and $50,000 for living expenses. Launched by Penn President Amy Gutmann, the awards are supported by Trustee Judith Bollinger and William G. Bollinger, Trustee Lee Spelman Doty and George E. Doty Jr. and Emeritus Trustee James S. Riepe and Gail Petty Riepe.

For most of his undergraduate career, Lievano has been focused on engineering with applications in human medicine. But when he began learning about the water security challenges facing rural and poor regions worldwide, he recognized another area that his skill set could be applied to.

“Once I became aware of the magnitude of this problem, discovering how many people drink unclean water every day, how many die from waterborne diseases each year, I knew I had to jump into it,” Lievano says.

The summer after their junior year, Lievano and Lisle were collaborating on a senior design project involving prosthetics, when their mutual friend Daniel Brooks, a senior biology major at Penn, returned from a summer spent in Kimana on a Project for Peace grant. Brooks described to them how the Kenyan community’s 300 members all depend on a single, distant well for their drinking water, and children are often forced to miss school, walking miles every day to carry water back to their families. One past effort to solve this problem involved the dissemination of high-tech straws that filter dirty water as the user drinks. But locals found the straw’s concept and design unappealing, and the technology was never adopted.

“Something as simple as looking into dirty water with a straw in your mouth really discourages a person,” Lievano says. “That’s one of the design elements you need to consider, aside from the quantitative requirements of potable water standards.”

But there may also be a natural solution to this problem: the moringa seed.

“When Brooks came back, he told us about this tree that grows naturally in the region, called the moringa tree,” Lievano says. “The locals were grinding up its seeds and using them to filter bottles of water.”

After doing some research, Lievano and Lisle discovered that the seed contains coagulant proteins, which, like an industrial flocculent, will bind to heavy metals, sediment and microorganisms, effectively removing them from water.

“When we read about this seed’s amazing properties, we thought, maybe we could turn this into a large-scale system,” Lievano says. “The materials are there, the capacity is there, now it’s just a matter of using the materials to tap into the capacity.”

The President’s Engagement Prize will grant Lievano and Lisle the funding support to do just that. In a proof-of-concept study, the team has already shown that moringa seeds can reduce waterborne E.coli by more than 85 percent and coliform bacteria by 95 percent. Over the next year, in collaboration with the NGO Hands on the World Global, Lievano and Lisle will be designing, prototyping and implementing a rain-water catchment and filtration system that can meet the water needs of the entire community.

From July to December of this year, Lievano and Lisle will focus on honing their design. Penn and the broader Philadelphia community harbor a wealth of expertise in terms of designing and implementing large-scale water filtration systems. To tap into this network, Lievano and Lisle sought out Stanley Laskowski, former president of the Global Water Alliance and lecturer in Penn’s master’s of environmental studies program, as their project advisor. For insight into the technical side of the project, Lievano and Lisle will also work with engineering professor Paulo Arratia, an expert in fluid dynamics, as well as with chemists at the Philadelphia Water Department. They’ll also take a short trip to Kimana in September, to begin establishing ties with the community.

Later in January, Lievano and Lisle will return to Kimana for six months to install their rain-water filtration system and provide ongoing community support and education. With the assistance of HOWGlobal, they plan to travel throughout the region, meeting with community leaders and scoping out other sites that could benefit from similar systems.

“This seed grows everywhere, and the locals are already accustomed to it,” Lievano says. “If our technology works, why not coordinate an effort to spread it to a much larger region?”

Lievano is keeping an open mind when it comes his a long-term career. If there’s a common thread amongst his broad interests, it’s helping people to use technology to overcome challenges.

“If you had asked me a year ago, I was going to be a doctor,” he says. “But now, I’m thinking more broadly about how I can merge my interests in technology, water and health into one field where I can act as an orchestrator. For now, I’m excited to fully commit to this project, see it succeed and become sustainable.”

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