Researchers using llama manure to clean water

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LEXINGTON, Virginia (WSLS) – As part of an ongoing effort to help a village in South America, a group of VMI cadets is spending the summer working to find ways to help the people there purify their water. Their solution may surprise you — llama manure.

VMI’s “Engineers Without Borders” program sends cadets and faculty to some of the most impoverished areas in the world to lend a helping hand. One of those places is a small village in the mountains of Bolivia called Pampoyo.

“Because of all the mining there, they have heavy metal contamination in their streams,” said Major Tim Moore, an Associate Professor of Engineering at VMI and faculty sponsor of Engineers Without Borders. “They drink directly from those streams. And because of that they end up with a lot of health problems.”

Moore leads a group of students to Pampoyo every year and the primary focus of those trips has been giving the people there access to clean water.

To make that work, Moore says, they need to find a source of carbon that’s readily available in Pampoyo. Because of the elevation, the usual suspects like plants and other woody material won’t grow there, but one thing villagers do have a lot of is llama manure.

This summer it’s cadets Amber Joyner and Alexandria Gagnon’s job to figure out how to take llama manure and turn it into a working filtration system.

“I did not know that you could do that,” said Joyner. “But I think it’s absolutely amazing that something that’s so readily available in that country is something that can help save lives and can promote health.”

They burn the manure at 350 degrees Celsius for several hours to kill any bacteria or other harmful organisms it may contain. Then, they grind up what’s left, a carbon-rich material called biochar, and add it to the water.

“A really small amount can clean a whole liter of water,” said Gagnon.

After they mix in the biochar, they place the bottles of water on a machine that shakes them for 24 – 48 hours. They then pour the water through another filter to remove the biochar and end up with clean water.

“I really think this is the quintessential definition of sustainability,” said Moore. “Cleaning water with manure, I think that’s amazing you can do that.”

Using this process, they’ve been able to remove more than 90 percent of the metal in water samples they’ve contaminated with iron, copper, and lead. The next step, they say, is to take what they’ve learned in the lab and figure out how they can replicate it in Bolivia.

“They don’t have a $10,000 oven. We do,” said Gagnon. “So we need to figure out a way they can do this themselves and then how are they going to filter the carbon out of the water.”

They hope to have those questions answered before they return to Pampoyo next spring.

They say they still have to run some tests on the filtered water before they drink it themselves, but they believe they are very close to that point.

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