For the past three months I have been working as a Development Intern at Abundant Water based in Vientiane, Laos. Abundant Water is an Australian non-profit that focuses on household water treatment in rural Laos, namely the production of clay pottery water filters. Clay pottery water filters are exactly what they sound like, small cylindrical filters made of clay similar to that of any pottery studio.
Our filters are made using traditional Lao pottery techniques, using feet to mix the clay and shaping the clay by hand until it is pressed in a mold. Three local staff members, Noukham, Thai and Keo, produce all the filters distributed by Abundant Water. The main difference between these filters and your everyday pottery is that the crushed clay is mixed with coffee grounds before adding water. In ceramic filter terms, the coffee is what’s known as the burnout material. Rice husks, cornhusks and sawdust are also commonly used in other regions; any readily available organic material can be used.
When the filter is fired in a kiln, the clay is heated at 800-900° C and the soft moldable clay turns to hard ceramic. During this stage the coffee grounds also burn, leaving tiny holes in the filter that allow water to pass through. These holes are big enough for a water molecule but small enough to stop harmful pathogens and bacteria. This mechanism allows the filter to remove disease-causing organisms from contaminated water and provide clean drinking water as an end product.
My work at Abundant Water mainly consists of quality control monitoring of the filters. Every filter is tested for ten days to ensure the flow rate, the speed at which water passes through the filter, falls within the acceptable range. The flow rate falling into this range ensures that the water is passing through the filter slowly enough that harmful bacteria and viruses can be removed but fast enough that it can supply enough water for one family. A certain portion of the filters are also tested for microbiological effectiveness, or the percentage of bacteria that is removed from the original water source. The acceptable range for the filters is a 2-log reduction or 99% of bacteria removed by the filters.
Working at Abundant Water has allowed me to see the intersection between engineering and craftsmanship; the design of these filters is actually quite simple and the techniques used are derived from the cultural traditions of Lao pottery. Despite their simplicity, the impact is massive. Access to clean water allows families to spend less time and money on firewood to boil water for purification. Less time that girls have to spend collecting wood instead of in school and less money that could be spent on other household necessities.
At the halfway point of my internship with Abundant Water, I have already learned so much about life in Laos, clay pottery water filters and the intersection of engineering and culture. Thus far, I have had an invaluable learning experience, one that has pushed me outside of my comfort zone (pottery-making is definitely not listed on my resume!) and challenged me to learn new things. I look forward to all that the next three months have in store!