19 February 2014

Broadening the Wastewater Treatment Scope

In the summer of 2013, the Anaerobic Wastewater Treatment team was created as a subteam within AguaClara when a group of students and professors recognized that AguaClara had grown large enough to expand its scope from focusing solely on supplying clean water to also dealing with the waste produced after the water is used. The Wastewater Treatment team is unique within AguaClara because it is the only subteam which uses biological treatment. The team researches the use of bioreactors to treat wastewater while also finding ways to use it as a source of energy.

Imhoff Tank in San Nicolas
Activated Sludge
This winter break, all six of the Anaerobic Wastewater Treatment team members from last semester were able to join the trip to Honduras, where they saw three different types of wastewater treatment. The largest one they visited used the same upflow anaerobic 
sludge blanket (UASB) technology that the team has focused its research on. The UASB technology the team uses in its reactors allows the wastewater to flow upward while undergoing anaerobic digestion and creating a 'blanket' of sludge. Anaerobic digestion uses bacteria to break down the organic material found in wastewater that makes it unsafe to release into natural bodies of water. Methane, a product of the anaerobic digestion, can be captured and used as a source of energy. Last semester the team focused its research on the UASBs while also experimenting with dispersing sand within the reactors to provide increased surface area for the bacteria to grow on, allowing for more efficient treatment. 

Oxidation Lagoons in Jesus de Otoro

The other wastewater treatment methods the team encountered while in Honduras included less technological processes such as oxidation lagoons and constructed wetlands. These aerobic treatments take up much more land than the UASB's, but the smaller, rural communities that use these techniques prefer the low-maintenance and visual appeal. Upon visiting these smaller communities, the team realized the need to find new and innovative ways to provide adequate sanitation to more isolated areas.

This semester, the goals for the Wastewater Treatment team have expanded. Because it is one of the largest teams they will be able to split up into three groups, each of which will focus on a different aspect of the team’s goals. One group will continue with the UASB research from the past year.
Another group will be rethinking the reactor designs. Last semester the experimentations with sand failed because the grains were too small and clogged the reactors and the methane capturing device was found to be not as efficient as the team would hope. Therefore, one goal is to redesign the methane capturing device to optimize capture and the other is to experiment with different inlet geometry to allow for the use of sand without obstructing the reactor.
The last group will research combining anaerobic digestion with aerobic digestion. Until now, the team has overlooked aerobic digestion because it is much more energy, space, and cost intensive than anaerobic. However, aerobic digestion is a much faster and efficient method of treating wastewater and the ultimate goal is to be able to use the energy produced from the anaerobic processes to fuel the aerobic processes.

01 February 2014

Trip To Honduras: Home Stays

In the middle of the trip, the 26 AguaClara students ventured to Western Honduras to the town of San Nicolás, Santa Barbara, where the latest AguaClara treatment plant is almost complete. A number of kind Honduran families hosted pairs of students for the four nights the team was in San Nicolas. With only a handful of Spanish speakers in the group, many of the students initially struggled to communicate with their hosts. For most, miming took over as the primary form of communication, with the exception of a few staple Spanish terms like “gracias” and “baño”.

Though many of us were tentative in our new surroundings, the people of San Nicolas made us feel at home the first night of our stay. They welcomed the team with a magnificent cultural celebration at the town’s school, which also served as a meeting hall, where our host families and many of the town’s people had gathered. The town’s mayor thanked us all, especially Monroe, for the work we perform back in Ithaca and for coming to visit her town, knowing we had so much to learn and share with the people here. As a token of the entire town’s hospitality and openness, we were each given gifts, small woven baskets holding either a doll for the girls or a set of coasters for the boys. A group of students from the high school danced traditional dances and even taught a few of us the simplest of dance steps so we could join in. A traditional Honduran band played music after the dancers were done while we attempted to keep a beat to the entertainment of our new companions. Both the band and the dancers were beautiful to watch, and we hope they can one day travel to the States to share their talents with the rest of Cornell.

During our short stay, the town of San Nicolás was witness to a three part soccer battle not soon to be equaled. Our first day in town, we played a soccer match on the full-sized pitch against the local team. Though we had valiant efforts by Jorge and Antonio, two of our guides for the trip, and even traded two of our players for Olivo and Miguel, all-stars from the opposing team, we came up short. By the end of the game, everyone was sweaty and exhausted, either from playing or laughing at our attempt to play “the beautiful game”. The second and third nights we played on a smaller artificial turf field in an indoor type of atmosphere. The female students played some of the local girls, followed by a game where our male students played against some of the plant operators and others associated with the plant’s construction. Thanks to some expert play by Maya, our women’s team fared well, but the same could not be said for the men’s team. Whatever the outcome, we became better friends with those we played against and made sure everyone exited the games smiling.

Our gracious hosts sent us off in style with a barbecue chicken dinner provided by the host family of Luke and Jon. All our Honduran families were invited to join us and celebrate our last night together with many thanks, and of course even more music. We managed to coerce everyone in our group to dance, and thanks to the DJ, our highlight of the night was witnessing Chris lead the group in a dance to Gangam Style.

"Luke and I had a great family. The parents are teachers, and the kids were in university but home for the holiday. Their 21 year-old son Isaac was one of the candidates to be a plant operator. They made us an awesome dessert the second to last night, similar to french toast with a sweet sauce and raisins on top, and cooked the goodbye meal we all ate the last night. The chicken was roasted in a big wood fire oven in their backyard, and Luke is sure he heard distinctly fewer chickens outside our window the next morning. They were gracious, generous, and patient hosts, despite only communicating little fragments of meaning to them in our broken Spanish." - Jon Christensen

"I was extremely fortunate to be around the same age as my hosts. Even with my limited Spanish, we were able to connect in many parts of our lives. Dania just graduated from law school and is working as a lawyer in the next town over. We would stay up late chatting about school, TV, friends, family, and everything in between using a combination of Spanglish, Google Translate, and wild charades. It was a pleasure hearing about her life in San Nicolás! Now we are Facebook friends, and communicate often about how things back in our respective daily life. She even called when I first arrived back in New Jersey to make sure my flight went well!" - Melissa Shinbein

For many students, the sudden shift to homestays was the most difficult part of the trip, but it was also a very meaningful time for all of us, and is an experience for which we are extremely grateful.Though we only stayed in San Nicolás four nights, we were sad to part with our families. We know we have made good friends in a place where we will have connections for many years to come. It takes a lot of trust to open one’s house to complete strangers who don’t even speak the language. It is a kindness we don’t see too often and we feel so much gratitude to the people who took us in and showed us their beautiful town.