Students Develop Cheap Water Treatment System Using Chip Packets

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Justine Alford

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2132 Students Develop Cheap Water Treatment System Using Chip Packets
Kara LaFleur, "Delhi-1," via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A team of students at the University of Adelaide has designed an elegantly simple yet efficient water treatment system using empty chip packets, some plywood and glass tubing. What’s more, the whole thing cost just $67 and doesn’t require skilled engineers to assemble, making it ideal for remote communities with no access to clean water.

In the Western world, most of us probably take our taps and bottled water for granted. Safe water is something that millions of people across the globe do not have the privilege to access. According to the CDC, around 1 in 9 people, or 780 million individuals, don’t have access to improved drinking water sources. Drinking unsafe water exposes individuals to a variety of pathogens that often cause diarrheal diseases, among others. It’s estimated that 1.5 million people, 90% of whom are children, die each year from consuming dirty water.


Determined to make a difference, University of Adelaide scientists teamed up with ChildFund Australia to learn about the water problems faced by many communities in Papua New Guinea (PNG). They often rely on large tanks to collect rainwater which are easily contaminated with disease-causing microbes.

“Our priority was to develop a system with, and not just for, the end-users,” lead researcher Dr. Cristian Birzer said in a news-release. “We wanted something where we could provide design guidelines and let the local communities build and install their own systems using readily available materials that could easily be maintained and replaced.”

The team started off by developing an efficient water treatment system using high-quality materials. Then, using this as a basis for design, they built a rudimentary version using much cheaper materials. Their finished product works by guiding sunlight towards water inside a glass tube with the help of a half cylinder lined with reflective foil chip packets. The Sun’s UV-A radiation then stimulates the production of reactive oxygen species in the water which can irreversibly damage pathogens’ DNA, ultimately causing them to die. The students tried out various different reflective materials and found that chip packets, which are a common trash item, worked just as well as anything else. In less than 30 minutes, the innovative system could reduce high concentrations of E. coli to undetectable levels.

According to Birzer, the team wanted to avoid the “white man solution” by coming up with a tailor-made solution to a real problem that PNG communities face.  


“The final design is something that anyone can make, so it’s not a product we’re giving, it’s just a concept, a design that anyone can make and therefore they own it- it’s theirs,” Birzer told ABC News.  

Costing just $67, the system can clean up almost 40 liters of water in just 4 hours. If several systems are installed together, then larger quantities can be treated to meet the needs of larger villages.

According to ABC News, ChildFund are due to start trials of the device shortly in PNG. If successful, the concept will be rolled out across the country to rural villages in need. 

[Via University of Adelaide and ABC News]