It's not every day we hear about undergraduate engineering students traveling to Mongolia for research. Or teaming up with potters to use clay in life-changing ways. At the University of Pittsburgh's Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, though, undergraduate and graduate students alike are taking on the world's infrastructure, using engineering principles to uncover greener, more sustainable solutions. In conjunction with the G20 Summit, the center opened its doors to media last week to demonstrate its work solving crises from local power problems to international groundwater pollution epidemics.

Unlike traditional engineering labs, which center co-director Eric Beckman compares to grottoes, the Mascaro Center features wide, open spaces and natural light (supplemented with occupancy-sensored LEDs — the building is moments away from LEED gold certification). Beckman says the open layout fosters the sort of research the center hopes for in allowing different departments to interact with one another. The results have been stunning so far.

Bamboo: Stronger than concrete

In the sub-basement of the building, Pitt professor and civil engineer Kent Harries has a phalanx of students testing the stress resistance of building materials. His goal is to prove bamboo is the best choice for areas like the Himalyas or Brazil, where earthquakes devastate buildings made from steel and concrete. Partnered with research institutions in India, Harries conducted field research in Darjeeling during the May 2008 earthquakes. His findings proved that bamboo is equally as strong as steel and about 20 percent stronger than concrete. The fact that bamboo can be produced locally makes it the ideal construction material for many areas of the world. Harries says we are seeing a rebirth of bamboo as a leading building material as it was in Asia for thousands of years. Because the plant is local, Harries says, "you only have to move your building supplies a few miles down the street! It generates local industry and saves on shipping, plus there is no waste."

Pottery fights pollution

In another section of the building, where the students don't need safety goggles, the focus is very much on waste. The Mascaro Center plays host to several projects battling polluted water on several continents. Ian Nettleship heads a team of engineers studying the distribution of silver through ceramic water filters. The metal tends to flake off the surface of the filter, so Nettleship's team seeks a longer lasting solution.

The tiny, nondescript domes dripping water into Home Depot buckets don't look like much in the name of saving lives or cutting edge research. But Nettleship points out that the filters remove contaminants from drinking water, with the potential to save thousands of lives. He says, "The World Health Organization says that millions of people die each year from diarrhea because they don't have access to clean water. These filters are actually in use around the world, saving lives."

His team collaborates with Potters for Peace, and a group of ceramic artists who have been developing the filters in a pottery studio in Braddock, Pa., a former steel town adjacent to Pittsburgh. Nettleship and his students study the ways the metal needs to cooperate with the clay; Potters for Peace work on distributing the filters and disseminating information about their use.

Low-tech system prevents arsenic poisoning

Other filtration projects the students explore include an iron and magnet system used to remove arsenic from drinking water. Nomadic people of inner Mongolia are exposed to arsenic levels over 180 times the United States' recommendation for safe levels, says Di Gao, the professor leading the study. His research connects civil engineers, environmental engineers and Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs as they work to stop the slow arsenic poisoning that kills many Mongolians by age 40.

Brad Harkin, one student researching the project, says that "part of the problem is that many of the people in Mongolia are nomadic. There is no municipal treatment of water and little access to a power source." Their solution involves a two-tiered bucket-and-pipes construction that looks like something from an elementary school science lab. The students dump iron oxide into the contaminated water in the top bucket, stir it, and crank the dirty water past a magnet. At the other end, safe water drips into the lower bucket. The concept is not a new one, but these students are working to produce a portable valve/magnet unit for under $5. Harkin says, "Our system will have a life cycle of approximately 20 years and an operating cost of zero." The research, in phase one right now, will move to a field study in Mongolia later this year.

The researchers inside the Mascaro Center carry out their work a stone's throw away from locations where the heads of state convened for the G-20 summit. Harries feels the tour of the center is a fitting addition to the summit because, like the delegates, its researchers focus on basic, global human rights. "Safe housing is a basic human right," he says, as is access to safe drinking water. With thousands of dollars in grants and scholarships available to students and international partners on three continents, it seems clear the students and professors of the Mascaro Center have only begun their work in innovation.

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MNN homepage photo: Andy445/iStockphoto

Pitt's Mascaro Center tackles the world
Arsenic poisoning prevention, earthquake safety are just two examples of Pitt's Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation students' work around the globe.