Penn Senior Matthew Lisle: Adapting to Climate Change Through Water Security

By Madeleine Stone  @themadstone       

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

One of the biggest challenges of the 21st century will be meeting the world’s growing water needs in the face of a changing climate. Like other environmental challenges, achieving water security will require innovation on many fronts.

“I love robotics, but I’m also very passionate about climate change, and water security is a huge part of that,” says Matthew Lisle, a University of Pennsylvania senior from Bryn Mawr, Pa., majoring in mechanical engineering and applied mechanics.

Lisle, one of five recipients of a 2015 President’s Engagement Prize, now has the opportunity to tackle this global challenge firsthand. Along with fellow MEAM senior Adrian Lievano, Lisle will spend the 2015-16 academic year designing and implementing a sustainable rainwater catchment and filtration system in Kimana, Kenya, where access to clean drinking water is a daily struggle.

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 Lisle, environmental stewardship has been a passion since childhood. Once at Penn, he co-authored an award-winning business proposal for an engineering entrepreneurship class that would place wind turbines along highways to take advantage of cheap renewable energy. Since the summer after his sophomore year, he’s been interning with Laser Technology Inc., helping the company to make wind turbines safer.

“Climate change has really been a common thread through my entire educational development,” Lisle says. 

Lisle and Lievano became friends while collaborating on class projects, including a senior design project building prosthetic limbs for children. It was their mutual friend Daniel Brooks, a senior biology major at Penn, who first sparked their interest in water security. Brooks spent last summer in Kimana on a Project for Peace grant, but, before he left, the three had a conversation in which they brainstormed effective water purification tools for the developing world. When Brooks returned from Kenya, he brought additional insights that helped Lievano and Lisle transform their idea into an exciting project.

“He described how the entire community depended on a single well for drinking water and that small children would have to miss school, walking miles every day to get water for their families,” Lisle says.

But Brooks also presented what may be a natural solution to this problem: the moringa seed. He explained how the seed, which comes from a tree that grows natively in the region, was being ground up and used to filter bottles of water. After doing some research, Lisle and Lievano discovered that there’s strong scientific evidence to support the moringa seed’s water purification capabilities.

“When the seed is ground down, you can activate what’s called a ‘coagulant protein,’” Lisle says. “Then, it’ll act as any other industrial flocculant, in some cases, more effectively. It will bind heavy metals, reduce turbidity and take out bacteria.”

As recipients of the President’s Engagement Prize, Lisle and Lievano will now spend a year designing, prototyping and implementing a rainwater catchment and filtration system that incorporates the moringa seed as a biodegradable and sustainable alternative to industrial purification agents.

Through Brooks’ connections, Lisle and Lievano have partnered with Hands on the World Global, an NGO with strong ties to the region and experience implementing rainwater catchment systems. To tap into the water purification expertise of Penn and the broader Philadelphia community, they 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 help with the technical side of the project, Lisle and Lievano will also work with engineering professor Paulo Arratia, an expert in fluid dynamics, as well as with chemists at the Philadelphia Water Department. Thomas Cassel, founder of the Engineering Entrepreneurship program at Penn, will also serve as a mentor, offering Lievano and Lisle his entrepreneurial perspective on sustainable design.

From July to December, Lisle and Lievano will focus on honing their design.

“We’ve already done a proof of concept test, which shows that using these materials, we can reduce E.coli by over 85 percent and coliform bacteria by 95 percent,” Lisle says. “We expect those numbers to get better as we refine our design.”

One of the team’s biggest challenges will be to keep costs down while ensuring their system is able to meet the water needs of the entire community.

“The bottom line is that this system needs to output as much water as the community’s 300 people need, every day,” Lisle says. “If you pick the wrong filters, or if parts are too expensive to replace, the system isn’t going to be sustainable. This is why we’re excited to be using a material the locals are already farming.”

In January, Lisle and Lievano will travel to Kimana for six months to install their rainwater filtration system and provide ongoing community support and education. They plan to travel throughout the region, meeting with community leaders and scoping out other sites that could benefit from similar systems.

After the year’s end, Lisle, who sub-matriculated into the Master’s In Robotics program at Penn, will return to complete his graduate degree. As for future career paths, he’s keeping an open mind with an eye toward applying his engineering skills to all sorts of real-world challenges.

“First things first, I would love to see this project be successful,” he says. “Now that I have the skills to impact the climate-oriented industries, such as water, wind and solar, I’m excited to start applying them.”

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