CMU researchers develop The Drinkable Book water filters

For many in the United States, it is hard to imagine the struggles that residents of third world countries go through. Not only is there a lack of ways to efficiently filter and clean water in these countries, but there is often a lack of understanding about how to be healthy in environments with unsanitary water sources. According to UNICEF, over 663 million people are still unable to access clean water. Additionally, many of these individuals do not know basic principles of sanitation, which can ultimately have devastating health consequences.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, including Teri Dankovich, a postdoctoral researcher in the civil and environmental engineering department, are currently working toward finding a solution for these problems through the use of an educational book that doubles as a water filter.

Before coming to Carnegie Mellon, Dankovich completed her Ph.D. research at McGill University, where she dealt specifically with making antimicrobial paper. She found that when coated with silver nanoparticles, paper acts as a filter by destroying any bacteria that passes through the sheet. Since only a negligible amount of silver escapes into the filtered water, this method of purifying water offers major health benefits. Unlike other solutions that kill bacteria, such as chlorine, silver nanoparticles are relatively harmless since they don’t infect the water supply.

Since then, Dankovich’s work with paper filters has continued to develop. Most notably, an advertising agency known as DDB New York contacted Dankovich about her work and proposed the idea of “The Drinkable Book.” This concept revolved around producing a book made using the paper water filters, known as pAge drinking papers, with printed information about sanitation and water essentials. Since paper is relatively cheap compared to most filter devices, this book was designed to allow people in underdeveloped countries to not only access clean water at an affordable price, but also to educate themselves about ways to improve habits of sanitary water consumption.

This concept was not, however, simply theoretical. After partnering with the charity “Water is Life,” a video about The Drinkable Book came out in August 2014 and has accumulated more than a million views. Since then, there has been a great deal of progress made towards deploying not only the book, but also the water filters themselves, to actual places in need.
Most recently, Dankovich’s team of researchers traveled to Bangladesh this past summer to complete field testing of pAge. The trip was prompted by International Development Enterprises (iDE), an organization that focuses on helping those in underdeveloped countries gain access to necessities with little to no change in their cultural practices. The team focused on testing water quality from pAge and the reactions of Bangladeshis to pAge. Focus groups of men and women in different areas around Bangladesh were asked questions involving the design and the ease of use of these paper filters.

Angela Ng, a senior civil and environmental engineering and biomedical engineering double major at Carnegie Mellon University, was one of the members of Dankovich’s team. Ng explained that one goal of the trip was to determine how to implement the filters without altering the customs of the area.

“The people of Bangladesh gather their water in a Kolshi,” Ng explained. “But [iDE] didn’t want [Bangladeshis] to change their current water practices to match the current design.” Since Kolshis are pear-shaped containers, the flat design needed to be adapted to better suit the practices of Bangladeshis. In the end, the design that worked the best in focus groups was a paper filter that was shaped like a coffee filter. This design allowed the filter to easily fit into the opening of the Kolshi so that when Bangladeshis scooped up water, any bacteria present would be eliminated from the water supply.

Despite the success of The Drinkable Book, there is still a lot of research being done to improve the effectiveness of pAge filters. Although the paper filters are said to kill 99.99 percent of bacteria, there are still several concerns that need to be resolved. Ng, along with Jiajia Lyu, a masters student in the civil and environmental engineering department, is working on understanding these issues.

Current research is focused on answering questions such as how long the filters will last, how long the ink will last, how parasites and waterborne pathogens react to silver, and what happens if more silver is added to the filters. More testing also needs to be done in order to meet the standards of the World Health Organization and the United Nations. However, to do this research, the dirty water samples collected in Bangladesh need to be recreated, which is quite a challenging task. “We have to add soil particles, sand particles, bacteria, and sea salt, monitor the pH, and so much more for these specific standards,” Ng said.

The future of the research is still uncertain. “Right now we’re discussing whether we want to be under full control of this, or if we want to form partnerships with organizations that are much bigger than us to help move it forward,” Dankovich said. Currently, The Drinkable Book is still undergoing further research and tests. Not only will lab research continue, but Dankovich hopes to do more field research. She plans to conduct a health intervention study by delivering the filters to communities and asking the users about their personal experiences with the product.

According to Dankovich and Ng, production of pAge filters in Bangladesh may begin sometime in the near future. However, there are still many complications that need to be worked out before anything official is decided. Dankovich hopes that in the future, pAge and The Drinkable Book will become commodity products in places all around the world that lack access to clean drinking water.