Humanitarian Engineering Initiative Launches Collaboration with Red Cross

May 1, 2020

Mechanical Engineering students today are not only characterized by intellectual brightness, they are socially conscious change-makers, dedicating hours of study and many a late night to improving the lives of people in distressed communities.

Since 2010, under the direction of Mechanical Engineering Professor and Humanitarian Engineering Chair Janet Ellzey, Projects with Underserved Communities has brought together engineering and social work students to make an impact in communities in developing countries through such services as improving sanitation, enhancing food storage, and designing sustainable water treatment systems.

Last year, Dr. Ellzey launched Humanitarian Product Development, a collaboration supporting the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the world’s largest humanitarian organization. In coordination with a civil engineering alumnus at IFRC, products are identified that the organization needs in its work in highly distressed areas around the world.

In these situations, engineering requirements for products vary greatly from those used in highly developed communities due to logistical constraints, limited financial, material, and human resources, and cultural and social considerations. Therefore, the collaboration with the IFRC gives students unique opportunities to learn about designing within these constraints and to positively impact the communities with which the IFRC works in.

Currently, Humanitarian Product Development is designing a low-cost biodigester, a press to remove water from latrine waste and reduce drying time, a  renewable energy system for use in households, and a device to fabricate sanitary pads on-site. These products have unique constraints: they must be low-cost, consume no external power, pack and ship easily, and be operated with little training. 

Mechanical Engineering graduate student Brittany Speetles was the team leader of the biodigestor project in Spring 2018. To help solve the problem of sanitation in areas where residents are with little to no infrastructure, students are aiding in designing and prototyping a rubber bag called the Flexigestor, which captures waste and converts it to biogas and biofertilizer.

“I think it is really important to provide sanitation to more people — it is a huge problem because it creates disease spread and is really bad for the environment.” said Brittany.

“The good thing about this product is that it can contain waste so it doesn’t spread, and then you can benefit from it through energy. It would be good in rural areas as a septic tank. Also, if you’re using this, then you can use the biogas to cook with or use biofertilizer to grow plants with.”

Siddharth Kurwa, a mechanical engineering 2019 graduate, took the lead on solving another unique challenge: the difficulty of stockpiling sanitary pads for women in underserved communities. Due to the variation in size, thickness, and shape  that each woman prefers, as well as any cultural implications that may stem from the use of sanitary pads, IFRC wanted to implement a means of fabricating sanitary pads using local material and labor.

Siddarth’s approach to the design process was not timid.  “First, [I had to find out] what does this pad actually look like? What are the layers? What needs to go into the pad, and what sort of thought needs to go in there?” he said. “That weekend I got home, I bought some pads, I opened them up.”

Students participating in Humanitarian Product Development benefit from the unique cross-disciplinary learning experience and find that they appreciate engineering even more because of the humanitarian angle.

 “It’s frustrating when people think that engineering and making an impact are separated. It’s hard to see the flow of equations and then ask, ‘How does this do anything?’ said mechanical engineering 2019 graduate Keerat Baweja. “So, participating in this program and actually walking through the exercise of working with different people, building something that fits their needs, that is going to be safe, that is going to be effective — that’s what we look for in engineering.”