February 11, 2016 — On the first International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we’re excited to highlight eight U of T Engineering professors — all appointed in recent years — that are creating innovative solutions in bioengineering, sustainability, communications and enabling technologies. This article originally appeared in the 2015 issue of Skulematters.
Water and energy technologies for remote communities
Modern plants for water treatment or energy generation are typically designed to feed into existing infrastructure, such as city-wide plumbing or electrical grids. But people in remote communities — especially in the developing world — often lack this infrastructure. When areas with small or widely dispersed populations can’t afford the latest and greatest, they have to make do with older, less effective technologies, or simply go without.
Amy Bilton (MIE) and her team specialize in the creation of small, low-cost water and energy systems for remote communities in the developing and developed world. They use custom computer tools to optimize the design of technologies for local conditions, taking into account cost, availability of local materials and expertise required for maintenance. Where practical, they take advantage of renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar power.
One of Bilton’s projects involves working with communities in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and development organizations such as Fondo para La Paz to design small-scale desalination plants. These plants, which are powered by solar energy, take brackish groundwater and make it drinkable. Another project, still in the development stages, involves using renewable energy to improve oxygen exchange in fish farms in Vietnam. This will improve yields of fish, which are an important source of protein in the developing world.
This year, Bilton was approached by a team from Winds of Change, an organization doing development work in Pedro Arauz, Nicaragua. It was looking for help to design a windmill that could automate the pumping of groundwater to help farmers survive the long, dry season in that part of the world. Bilton assembled a multidisciplinary team of undergraduate students that flew to Nicaragua to consult with local farmers and gather data on weather patterns. The resulting windmill is due to be constructed this fall.
“Sometimes it’s the simple technologies that can make some of the biggest improvements in quality of life for people. I love working in an area where I can make a connection with a community and see the direct impact of my work.”