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Pittsburgh-Area Students Tackle World Water Crisis

According to the United Nations, nearly 800 million people around the world don’t have access to clean water — a daunting challenge for political leaders, humanitarians and scientists, but it hasn’t stopped a group of Pittsburgh area students from working on a solution. 

”We actually didn’t realize how extensive it was until we did all of our research,” said Kambree Love, a junior at South Fayette High School.  

She  is one of five dozen students from South Fayette and North Allegheny Intermediate High School who collaborated on a project to find a solution for a real world problem — the scarcity of potable water — particularly in parts of Africa and Asia.

South Fayette Superintendent Bille Rondinelli called the project an exciting opportunity for the students.

“We want our students to be globally competitive academically, but we also want them to have a caring sense about the world," she said. 

Assistant Superintendent Michael Loughead said the goal is to go beyond the classroom experience.

“It’s one thing to know content and have a knowledge of facts and information, it’s another thing to problem solve," he said.

The shortage of clean water means that every year 3.4 million people die from water-related illnesses. So how do you increase the supply of drinkable water? You purify tainted waste water or convert sea water.

The World Affairs Council through the Global Passport Project connected the students with Pittsburgh-based Thar Technologies as their business mentor. Thar is a green company involved in everything from geothermal to biodiesel production to water purification.

"I’ve always looked at water being the last frontier for what we want to accomplish," said Thar's founder and president Lalit Chordia. "Water is going to be a big problem. The next generation of wars will be fought on the availability of water."

Thar is developing a desalination device that converts sea water for human consumption and for farming.  The saltwater would be heated to about 250 degrees Celsius under high pressure, separating the sea salt from the water.

The task for the students was multifaceted: research 10 water-poor areas around the world and recommend one for deployment of the purification device. However, the recommendation would not be based solely on need but also consider other factors:  proximity to a source of sea water; ability to distribute the converted water, stability of that country’s government to lend support, and according to South Fayette senior Joncarlo Patton, the economic sustainability of the project.

"This machine not only has immense potential from a business standpoint but from a humanitarian, social standpoint," Patton said. "Because of that we not only  developed a business plan for it to analyze the business opportunity but also a grant proposal so that regardless of the exact manner it can be used to benefit the population."

The students from science and social studies classes worked together on their research and recommendations through meetings, video chats and, of course, lots of phone calls. Patton said the list was narrowed to two — Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh and Goa on India’s west coast.

"We analyzed the infrastructure present, the markets, the entrepreneurial spirit of both nations and determined that India would probably be the best market for Thar to begin initially before expanding to a more global level," Patton said.

The students determined that in addition to the treatment device, the facility would need water tanks as well as storage for the extracted salt.

Dewayne Rideout, founder of the Global Passport Project, which has been working with the South Fayette School District for about six years, said he was encouraged by the students excitement and engagement.

"They have not found this as a project but a passion, and when you can connect with a passion, I think you have the potential of doing things much greater than completing a project and checking a box," Rideout said.

South Fayette senior Joncarlo Patton says his part of the project might be over but his interest is not.

"It’s special to be  involved in such an early stage, and I think I speak for all of us, when I say we would like to follow the development and hopefully see this technology implemented someday and affect millions of people," he said.

Thar’s Lalit Chordia says he was “very impressed by the students’ work,” and while he hasn't decided on the exact location, he hopes to deploy his company’s first water purification system in 2015.