PROVO — Bridging the gap between on-campus theories and real world practice is a difficult step for anyone, requiring hard work, patience and growth.
For six BYU students, that opportunity came somewhat early, as the team of engineers became an integral part of bringing clean water to Tanzania and other impoverished countries through their capstone project, developing an invention that could be the difference between life and death for thousands.
Teaming up with sponsors WHOlives.org and the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology starting in September, the team built a low cost, hand-powered drill capable of digging underground wells that only requires four people to operate.
"We were given the problem of developing a drill for these villages in Africa," said Ken Langley, a mechanical engineer student and team leader. "We generated over a hundred concepts and we ended up choosing the most simple."
That design — consisting of a large, crane-like beam, hand crank, and eight-sided game show-esque wheel — has the ability to bore 250 feet into the ground at 27 feet an hour, finding any available water source.
According to water.org, nearly 3.6 million people die each year from water-related diseases, and one in eight people lack access to safe water supplies.
"There's a lot of contaminated water but not a lot of money," Langley said. "It feels really good to be a part of this. It kept us going through the difficult times to know we're having a positive impact [and] … are making something that could affect thousands."
John Renouard, founder of WHOlives.org, created the nonprofit eight years ago with the knowledge that providing accessible, affordable water had to be the first and foremost issue to tackle.
"On average, it costs $15,000 to drill a well in a village whose men earn less than $2 a day and there's 80 percent unemployment," he said. "We've been working with microfinance companies to finance the wells but it's not something we give for free. They have to participate in it and provide the labor to help build it. We don't go in there, build a plaque and then take off."
Already on the ground in Tanzania, Renouard and his organization look to expand and develop the drilling system on a global scale, working with other nonprofit groups to manufacture the product in various third world countries which "changes the game."
"What makes them a third world country is the lack of accessible water," he said. "There's just no way for the people to progress; no way to get out of that cycle of poverty. Once you solve that water problem, your children are not dying, they're going back to school and the women are becoming industrious. That's why we're here."
Renouard originally had the idea for the drilling despite little engineering know-how, first physically scribbling it out on a lined sheet of scratch paper. Soon thereafter, he was contacted by BYU's capstone program and it blossomed from there.
"Halfway through the project they had some prototypes but it wasn't quite what I envisioned," he said. "I wanted to make it simple and strong. When they sent me the picture of the final design, I said 'that's it.' They hit it out of the park. It's workable now, which is unheard of to do in six or seven months. To say it's been fantastic to work with these students would be understating what it's been."
Christopher Mattson, the team's faculty coach and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at BYU, said although the project itself was intended to produce a simple product, the process itself was complex. However, he felt the team did a good job of breaking up the project into small, manageable pieces.
"One of the things that we did well was that we made a lot of prototypes monthly since September," he said. "Every one of those build and digs teaches you huge amounts of stuff about what the next one should be like."
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Working hard through some complications and setbacks, the student team ended up putting in twice as many hours into the endeavor as required by the capstone course.
"It's been a challenge but the team has been fantastic and the sponsors have been fantastic," he said. "Being connected to humanitarian activities does mean something special. It means something to know this device is going to change peoples' lives. That's important to us. It's really the heart of engineering that we improve society and better life. It's part of the engineer's code."