Provost Andrew Abela, Bradley Lois, Jorge Gonzalez Mier, Olivia Janney, and Sepanta Khoshnoud at Research Day
For most students, graduation marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. But the earlier chapter continues for four recent Catholic University graduates, who are working with lawyers to form an LLC and secure a patent for the water filter they invented in the new Social Innovation Start-Ups course.
In fall 2018, students in the yearlong course, taught by Chris Danek, B.M.E. 1989, and Greg Behrmann, Ph.D. 2009, in the School of Engineering, were given a choice. They were asked to develop a product focusing on one of several topics, from a list including artificial intelligence, beekeeping, and Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria, among other categories.
The choice felt like an easy one for Jorge Gonzalez Mier, who is Puerto Rican. A fellow electrical engineering major, Sepanta Khoshnoud, was equally drawn to the topic, but was also intrigued by the beekeeping project. Because he had taken courses with Gonzalez Mier since they were both freshmen, Khoshnoud knew him as a hard worker, and that ultimately persuaded him to join the group hoping to provide some kind of relief for Puerto Rico.
Two other seniors, Bradley Lois, a dual degree student in civil engineering and architecture, and Olivia Janney, a civil engineering major, also signed up for the hurricane relief topic, motivated by the hope of contributing something positive to a world in need.
“For science’s sake, and as engineers, we want to solve a problem,” Lois said. “What this product can solve is that more than 35% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to sanitary water sources.”
Preliminary research persuaded the team that safe drinking water was the most critical need in the aftermath of the hurricane. Living without power is difficult, but living without drinkable water is impossible.
“We spoke to everyone from hurricane victims and first responders to industry contacts and people at government agencies,” said Gonzalez Mier, who made countless fact-finding calls in his role as the team’s chief business organizer. “One of our biggest helpers was a doctor from Miami who went to Puerto Rico the day after the hurricane hit. He was telling us about how the hospital couldn’t run because it had no water; he saw people dehydrated and about to die because they didn’t have any water.”
The foursome discussed various possible products for addressing the crisis, including a GPS that would tell people where to find the nearest governmental water distribution point. Eventually, they came around to the idea of developing the Vepo filter, loosely based on a Greek word for water.
In surveying the existing products in the field, the students found that currently available filters aren’t easy to use or maintain. What they came up with and refined in more than 20 prototypes is an ingenious device that requires only the power of a common nine-volt battery to operate, is portable, inexpensive, and can be easily used. In six minutes, it can purify two liters of water — a minimal daily allowance for a person to stay healthy in a disaster situation. Assuming there are three or four people in a family, the filter can be used for up to three months.
In the first phase of their purification process, untreated water is poured through a vertically stacked series of filters, or pods, each one roughly six inches tall and four inches wide. The first compartment contains a trap to block debris; the second is filled with sand, which removes oils, salts, and finer silts; and the third pod is filled with activated carbon, which improves the taste and odor of the water.
From there, the water swirls downward through a chamber where bacteria and viruses are killed by UVC light, ultraviolet rays in a wavelength that will kill organisms. The purifying light shines from LEDs encased in a transparent quartz sleeve.
“Bulbs take a lot of power, and you have to wait for them to heat up,” says Khoshnoud, the team member chiefly responsible for developing the UV chamber. “LEDs use less power, and the moment they’re on, they’re on — there’s no heat-up time.”
Khoshnoud’s UV chamber is quite ingenious. It’s carefully engineered so that UVC rays hit every point of water, ensuring that bacteria will be killed uniformly.
“You are not supposed to see the UVC LEDs when they’re on,” Khoshnoud says. “You wouldn’t actually see any light, because they’re not in the proper wavelength for visible light, but if you looked at it you could go blind, or get a bad burn or cancer. I added a safe green LED that would sit outside, so when it turns on, people know not to open the UV chamber. Also, if it doesn’t light up, the water is not safe to drink.”
After testing multiple prototypes, the quartet arrived at the current design. Janney was principally in charge of the gravity filtration system and testing the water; she found rainy days particularly good for work on the project.
“There were days when it was raining hard, and we would take water pouring down the sides of the road and pour it through our filter, and then test to see if it met EPA standards,” Janney said.
When the students presented their filter at Research Day, they were met with intense interest and excitement. All four of them recall taking part in constant conversation throughout the day.
“People just couldn’t believe that four college students came up with this,” Gonzalez Mier said.
Team members are grateful to Danek and Berhmann for their expert guidance, as well as to Jason Davison, assistant professor of engineering, who is a water quality specialist. In pitching the idea for the course to the School of Engineering, Danek, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, envisioned an interdisciplinary classroom in which students would develop products and then learn how to launch them in the business world.
The Vepo team not only won first place for undergraduate poster presentation, but was given some productive prods by the questions people asked, addressing some in their final design. Putting his architecture background to work, Lois used SolidWorks to create designs for the product, and produced components on a 3-D printer.
Though all four graduated in May, the members of the Vepo team are still in touch. Apart from patenting their filter, they hope to form an LLC to control its production and marketing.
“We’re not giving up because we’re done with school,” Lois said. “The next step could be making a small prototype and shipping it to Puerto Rico, and then hearing feedback. After that, our next step could be making Vepo centers where you can exchange old pods, hand them in for recycling, and get new ones for a fraction of the price. This could be at any Walmart, CVS, or actual Vepo stands that we start building. We’re not trying to go to the government so they can distribute it, we’re saying, ‘Hey, if you need water, go to CVS, or wherever we’re going to put this’ — right now, were talking to a department store chain in Puerto Rico. Families could go in, buy one of these filters, and take it home. Not only is it easy to use and maintain, but it’s something that you can have on every countertop for under 100 bucks.”
“People keep telling us we’re going to be billionaires in a couple of years,” said Janney. “I think that’s a little optimistic.“