Engineering News
October 13, 2003, Vol. 74, No. 8F

ENGINEER WITH NO FRONTIER: After getting her master’s in CEE in 2002, Sarah Brownell headed to Haiti to test out a low-cost, low-tech version of a water purification system.

Alum brings her expertise in water treatment to Haitian communities

Growing up in a small town outside Rochester induced dreams of travel for Sarah Brownell. From a young age she aspired to do development work abroad. Immediately after getting her bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology, she set out to work in a health clinic in Haiti.

Because her job was to put solar panels on the clinic’s roof, she spent the first two months of her three-month stay waiting for the solar panels to arrive.

“I spent that time studying the local language and getting acquainted with the culture. I also noticed how many people came to the clinic complaining of water-related issues and water-borne illnesses like typhoid, amoebic dysentery, and parasites. I wanted to do something about it, but my ME training didn’t give me the skills I needed to help with those problems,” she says.

While in Haiti, an engineering professor from Rochester got Brownell interested in a new system of disinfecting water using ultraviolet (UV) light.

The UV tube, consisting of a ferroconcrete trough, metal tube, and spigot, is designed to cheaply disinfect water with ultraviolet radiation. It’s ideal for using in developing countries because it’s a low-tech and low cost method for disinfecting batches of drinking water.

However, the manufactured UV unit came with its own set of problems. The system was prohibitively expensive for the poor families it served, difficult to ship, and users didn’t know how to fix it when it malfunctioned.

That experience spurred Brownell to apply to Cal to learn more about alternative methods of water treatment. At Berkeley she worked with the Energy Resources Group on making this technology affordable and easy to assemble for local use in Haiti.

The group is testing an alternative version of the manufactured UV tube in Mexico, where it only costs $50 to buy the self-assembling parts.

Brownell returned to Haiti this past summer to start the Brainstorming Technology Center. The center is run by trained local volunteers and is open on market days. It includes displays of the UV water disinfection system, solar cooking ovens, generators rigged to bicycles, dry toilets, and other ecological devices to make life safer and easier for local residents.

“The center deals more with educating people about sanitation and water-borne illnesses and low-tech methods of treating water and sanitation. The idea is to inspire local creativity and invention in solving environmental problems,” says Brownell.

Currently there are three manufactured UV disinfection systems in Haiti that are rigged as neighborhood systems. Anyone can come to the site and disinfect their personal supply of drinking water. The goal, says Brownell, is to replace the few expensive manufactured treatment units with more self-assembled ones, making the system more accessible and convenient for neighborhood users.

Brownell plans to return to Haiti in December to continue working on water issues. “I’ve been there five times and I feel like I have a home and community there,” she says.

For more on engineering work abroad e-mail the Berkeley Engineers Without Frontiers chapter at


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