NASA technology aids water purification effort in Iraq

A team of NASA engineers, who are used to making a difference in the lives of astronauts in space, recently had the chance to improve the lives of villagers in Iraq using NASA technology.

The engineering team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., helped install and test a water purification system in the northern village of Kendala.

Two years ago, the pump for the village’s deep-water well failed, leaving residents without access to clean water. The population quickly dwindled from more than 1,000 residents to just 150. Those who stayed were forced to haul water from nearby creeks muddied by dirty livestock. They also dug crude, shallow wells, straining the water through fabric to remove dirt and debris.

The village’s plight drew the attention of Concern For Kids, a non-profit organization in Lawrenceville, Ga., that has provided aid in Iraq since 1992. Recognizing the need for cutting-edge technology to save lives and revive the ailing community, Todd Harrison, president of Concern For Kids’ board of directors, turned to his sister Robyn Carrasquillo. She is the engineering manager for the Environmental Control and Life Support System, or ECLSS, project at Marshall.

The ECLSS system is designed to recycle air and water on the International Space Station, dramatically reducing the need for frequent, costly resupply missions from Earth. The system’s water processor, developed by Hamilton Sundstrand Space Systems of Windsor Locks, Conn., is undergoing final preparation at Marshall before it is flown to space and installed on the station.

Familiar with his sister’s work, Harrison knew NASA engineers at Marshall had developed many technologies for water purification in the 1970s and 1980s for the Space Shuttle Program and the International Space Station. So he posed a challenge to Carrasquillo and her team: Help via e-mail to install and test a new, ground-based water purification system to improve the quality of life for Iraqis struggling to rebuild their village and country.

The Concern For Kids filtration and purification system was designed and manufactured by Water Security Corporation, a commercial company in Reno, Nev. The company uses the same Space Certified Technology developed for NASA and used on the space shuttle. The system uses iodine to purify water from streams, rivers, wells and swamps to be used as drinking water for the local population.

Early this year, volunteers installed a 2,000-liter water tank in the village and, with the help of U.S. Army Civil Affairs personnel, began trucking in fresh water. But the water needed to be cleaned and required some modification to maintain healthy iodine levels.

There were two problems with the water purification unit in Kendala. The new water pump was improperly configured and the iodine bed had dried out during transport.

That’s when Carrasquillo’s team came into play. Despite a nine-hour time-zone difference, Carrasquillo and the other ECLSS engineers e-mailed advice and instructions, helping to fix the pump configuration problem and guiding the Iraq field team in rehydrating the resin bed.

“A member of the NASA team was even able to identify iodine levels from a digital picture of the cleaned water,” Harrison recalls. “NASA was right there at the ready for us when we needed them — even half a world away.”

In short order, the field team was able to deliver safe, clean drinking water to the Kendala village for the first time in two years. Now, Concern For Kids hopes to provide additional purification units for other villages.

At Marshall, the ECLSS system’s water processor draws ever nearer to flight, and Carrasquillo is confident the technology will serve the space station well. The technology is a major leap forward in serving the needs of future space explorers on the space station, on the moon or during deep-space missions to the outer reaches of the solar system.

“Each astronaut in space requires about three gallons of water every day,” Carrasquillo said. “That’s far less than the 35 gallons or so used each day by the average American, but still an amount that quickly adds up, crowding our shuttles and rockets and creating prohibitive costs. We’re excited to deliver a system that will change all that.”

She’s thrilled to have made a difference here on Earth, too. “To see our system solve a down-to-Earth problem, especially in a place where there’s such a serious need — there’s no greater reward than that.”


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