UC Davis Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) graduate students Kyle Fuller and Ezequiel Santillan, along with colleagues Solange Astorga and Lisa Marroquin, shared two first-place victories in this year’s Big Ideas@Berkeley competition. Their proposal, “Clean Water for Crops: As Simple as Sand and Seeds,” took top honors in the Global Health category, and was selected for the Grand Prize Pitch Day, where it also won first place in the Global Impact category. The combined awards include a $13,000 cash prize, which will be used to implement a pilot-scale system in the region targeted by the proposal.
Fuller, Santillan and their team have focused on Sololá, Guatemala, one of many communities surrounding Lake Atitlán. Population growth during the past two decades has led to increased sewage discharge into the lake, whose waters have long been used to irrigate local crops. Wastewater treatment plants mitigate some contamination issues, but the plants lack a disinfection process, which poses a health risk to those consuming these foodstuffs.
The winning Big Ideas proposal will employ slow-sand filtration, a tertiary treatment process already widely used to treat drinking water. Pathogen reduction will be enhanced further by including a filtration step through the seeds of the Moringa oleifera, a tree common to Guatemala and many other parts of Latin America. The seeds have anti-microbial properties that increase pathogen reduction by a factor of 10,000.
Such low-cost, gravity-fed technology can be used to treat wastewater to a level satisfactory for crop irrigation in small, developing communities, particularly those that lack a reliable supply of fresh water.
“In order to provide a viable solution that is specific to this community,” Fuller explains, “we chose to utilize materials that are local, easily accessible and cost-effective. We therefore can ensure that this solution is sustainable.”
Fuller recently completed his master’s degree in environmental engineering, where his research focused on wastewater treatment and slow-sand filtration. His excellent academic record was recognized with a 2013-14 UC Davis CEE Graduate Fellowship, and in 2014 he was named a Chevron Environmental Engineering Scholar. Since June 2014, he also has worked as an environmental engineering intern in the Water And Wastewater office of Stantec Consulting Services Inc., in Rancho Cordova, Calif.
Santillan expects to complete his UC Davis CEE graduate studies in 2017. His research work has included participation in a 2014 California Sea Grant report titled “Noroviruses in Coastal Waters: Implications for Seafood Cultivation and Human Health.” He also has worked in industry for five years.
Astorga earned a master’s-equivalent degree in industrial engineering at Argentina’s Universidad Nacional de Salta. She has belonged to the UC Davis chapter of Engineers without Borders since September 2013, and in August 2015 will begin graduate studies in materials science engineering at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
Marroquin completed her undergraduate degree in political science at Loyola Marymount University. She has served as an intern at the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, and since September 2014 has been a Women’s Policy Institute Fellow at the Women’s Foundation of California. In June 2015, she began working as a press assistant for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Big Ideas@Berkeley is an annual contest that provides funding, support and encouragement to interdisciplinary teams of students who have “big ideas” that can solve global problems. The program was founded in 2006, and since then student teams have tackled challenges in categories that include clean and sustainable energy alternatives, food system innovations, global health, information technology for society, and creative expression for social justice.