Four weeks with strangers in a foreign country may have intimidated some, but Saint Louis University sophomore Connor Highlander welcomed the challenge.
As a part of Engineers Without Borders, the 19-year-old Maryville resident traveled to Peru in May to build what he had researched for months prior: a solar desalination unit to provide clean water to a rural village of roughly 200 people.
“Salinated water — saline — is sea water. It’s got salt in it, and the desalination process takes salt out of it, so communities can drink it,” Highlander said.
While more than 663 million people worldwide rely on contaminated water sources, according to the World Health Organization, Highlander said the coastal fishing town of Playa Blanca is one of the places where residents have limited access to clean water.
“They have to buy it from the government, and it’s really expensive,” Highlander said. “It’s difficult for them to provide for the water needs of themselves ... it’s not like they’re using it to shower or wash hands or anything like that — it’s literally absolute basic human necessity.”
To alleviate some of the town’s burden on its water supply, Highlander engineered a system that allows people to use seawater after the salt has been sifted from it.
“The way that it works, in a nutshell, is you have this table, and you put seawater into this catch basin just through the roof on the side,” Highlander said. “The sun shines through the plexiglass — like a greenhouse. It evaporates, salt stays (at the bottom) and the drinking water condenses on the roof and drips down into pipes.”
I feel super lucky to have the education, and the mindset and the physical capacity to have gotten to do this, and I’m glad to have taken advantage of that.
Saint Louis University sophomore Connor Highlander
Roughly the size of a small refrigerator, the system uses the power of the sun to separate debris out of what ends up being potable water.
“Ideally it would pump out 11.6 liters per day, which is easily enough for five people,” Highlander said.
However, taking into consideration a number of factors, he said the output would likely be enough for three to four people.
“My personal goal was to make this (system) as simple and easy as possible. One, because it makes it a little more foolproof, but two, I hope the communities can replicate it in the future,” Highlander said.
He has since returned from his trip, but Highlander said he is still working with the WindAid Institute, a nonprofit that helped with the project, to create an instruction manual for communities to eventually build and service their own solar desalination units.
“It’s so doable, and there are so many communities in similar situations,” Highlander said with the hopes that the system will gain momentum in nearby regions.
In addition to addressing the issue of water while abroad, Highlander found himself working on another type of energy project for the community of Trujillo, Peru, with WindAid. According to Highlander, the nonprofit specializes in implementing wind turbines to off-the-grid communities that lack power.
“Down in the country ... I worked a sort of Peruvian 40-hour (work week) making wind turbines. We did one full small turbine and made a bunch of parts for servicing other turbines,” Highlander said.
Through SLU’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, Highlander received the opportunity to volunteer abroad — and put lead project manager on his resume. According to faculty adviser Ronaldo Luna, the student and professional organization focuses on small projects that affect communities in big ways.
“The ones that have the most impact are the projects that are related to water — to bring clean water to the communities, because without water, there’s no life,” Luna said.
In fact, Luna said the chapter has taken on a new clean water project. After completing one in Bolivia this year, the members are planning fundraisers to help an orphanage in Kenya access water.
However, Engineers Without Borders doesn’t only offer aid to foreign countries.
“We also help here locally, when we’re not traveling, in North St. Louis,” Luna said.
According to Luna, the organization is one of many that partners with the nonprofit North Grand Neighborhood Services to assist residents in the city.
“We go and help (residents) with rehabilitating their homes, taking care of their lawns and just different projects,” Luna said.
Whether aid is needed locally or overseas, Highlander said he is thankful for what he has that allows him to serve others.
“I feel super lucky to have the education, and the mindset and the physical capacity to have gotten to do this, and I’m glad to have taken advantage of that,” Highlander said.