Carnegie Mellon University
August 21, 2015

Turning the Page on Unsafe Drinking Water

Turning the Page on Unsafe Drinking Water

Teri Dankovich (left) and Angela Ng (right) review water sample testsTeri Dankovich (left) and Angela Ng (right) review water sample tests

Worldwide, 780 million people lack access to clean water, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. Armed with sheets of paper and an expert knowledge of nanoparticles, Teri Dankovich, a Civil and Environmental Engineering postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, is working to solve that problem with support from CEE students.

This summer, CEE student Angela Ng (BS ’16) traveled to Bangladesh to help test Dankovich’s innovative technology called pAge Drinking Paper—thick pieces of paper embedded with silver and copper nanoparticles that are lethal to bacteria.

In a recent talk at the 250th American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition, Dankovich presented results from these and other field trials showing that when you pour contaminated water through a sheet of pAge drinking paper, the paper removes over 99% of bacteria in the water. This simple process produces filtered water that is not only safe to drink, but also very similar to tap water consumed every day across the United States.

This paper is perhaps best known as the technology behind the Drinkable Book, a collection of pAge drinking papers presented as a book in which each page is printed with information about water sanitation and safety. More importantly, each paper can be easily torn from the book, placed in a filter holder, and used to clean water whenever needed. As a whole, one Drinkable Book could provide its owner with up to four years of clean drinking water.

“I had always wanted to work on The Drinkable Book project. It was actually the reason I chose my major,” explains Ng, who recalls watching a video about the project  before Dankovich joined the department.

Naturally, Ng jumped at the chance to join the project and travel to Bangladesh, applying for and receiving several grants, including a CIT Travel Grant, to fund the trip.

In Bangladesh, Ng and fellow team members worked with International Development Enterprises (iDE) to create a design that would allow pAge drinking paper to filter water directly into jugs called kolshis, which are commonly used to collect water throughout the country.

To gather information and water samples, the group travelled to various cities and rural areas, asking about which designs people preferred and how they collected their water. Learning from the designs that didn’t work, they created and tested various models before identifying the most successful design, which Ng describes as similar to a coffee filter. “The designs that failed ultimately led us to the designs we are now using,” Ng says.

For Ng, this experience was a chance to combine her education with her love of international travel and helping others. “I’ve been to Rwanda, Colombia, Kenya, and a bunch of other places in the last couple of years, but that was all volunteering.” says Ng. “Now, for the first time, I was able to connect all of the dots from what I had been learning and use my education to really make a difference.”

As part of her honors thesis, Ng will continue her work with Dankovich this fall. “There’s a lot more to discover and to do before we go into production—for example, figuring out the longevity of this new design and seeing if it doesn’t only kill bacteria but also key species like Giardia, Microsporidia, and other waterborne pathogens,” explains Ng.

To Ng, the Drinkable Book and the kolshi filters are just the beginning. “I see us working with different countries to adapt pAge drinking paper to respond to how they currently collect water. We don’t want to drastically change their water practices, but instead help them to get cleaner, safer water in the way that they already know how. The paper may evolve in many different forms and shapes and designs, but the technology will still be the same.”

When asked about her own future, Ng does not hesitate. “This is the type of work I want to do for the rest of my life—to create solutions that better communities around the world.”