UMass Amherst Engineering Students Design Do-it-yourself Water Pump for Amazon

November 9, 2010

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AMHERST, Mass. - Student members of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have designed a do-it-yourself water pump for use in a settlement in the Brazilian Amazon and they are teaching the people there how to build the device using locally available materials. The students are now in the process of writing a user manual for the pump and will return to the Amazon next summer to deliver it.

The simple pump mechanism, made from inexpensive PVC and rubber, is engineered to provide clean spring water for many of the 280 households in the settlement.

Last July when the EWB team travelled to Divisao in the protected Chico Mendes Extractivist Reserve for rubber tappers, they found widespread problems in getting clean water to the residents. "Every location, every house, every school, every building that has a water source probably needs work," says Phil MacClellan, a civil engineering student and member of the EWB team. He says because the team can’t tackle each individual problem, they decided on a broader solution. "The EWB idea is that we plant the technology, and they spread it themselves. The rubber tappers really took to our ideas and are intent on using them throughout the reserve."

The rubber tappers live sustainably in the Amazon rainforest, but are plagued by disease and infection due to contaminated water. To respond, the EWB team spent about a year designing a pump that can be made out of two materials, PVC piping and rubber, both readily available to the community. PVC was selected as the main ingredient for the construction because it is cheap, durable and easy to assemble.

"It was designed to be pretty simple, and we had done most of the grunt work earlier by making sure everything already fit together," says MacClellan. "And we had practiced assembling the pump so many times here at UMass beforehand that we were getting pretty good at it."

Once in the Amazon, the team constructed and installed the pump at a new school, which was recently built in the reserve through a grant from the Brazilian government obtained by the team’s Brazilian contact, Vera Reis, a local university professor. At the same time, EWB members taught people from the reserve to build pumps themselves and install them wherever they are needed.

"These rubber tappers were actually very handy, because they build their own houses," MacClellan says. "Once we got the pump built and installed, they said, ‘Oh, this is a great idea, and we know we can build this ourselves. But we’d also like to have a manual for it.’ So we’re working on that now."

Engineers Without Borders is a student organization dedicated to helping Third World communities create sustainable solutions in order to improve their quality of life. The EWB group is responsible for the design, fundraising, construction and implementation of each project. The idea is not to create a singular solution but to provide the tools necessary for the community members to help themselves.

The Amazon team was made up of MacClellan, David Azinheira, a senior civil engineering major and the Amazon project manager, Calvin Archibald, a former UMass graduate student in environmental engineering, and George Costa, the team’s professional mentor and a faculty member at Springfield Technical Community College.