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Maureen Kelly, TFMoran Civil Project Engineer, continues her engineering assistance in Haiti with UML Haiti Development Studies Center

In early January, TFMoran Civil Project Engineer Maureen Kelly traveled to the southern Haitian city of Les Cayes. Her traveling companions were five seniors in Civil Engineering from the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML), as well as Physics professor and department head Dr. Robert Giles. Dr. Giles founded the Haiti Development Studies Center (HDSC), the educational facility and guest house where the group spent the week. The students are involved in multiple initiatives focusing on education and sustainable development. Maureen acts as a volunteer assistant on these projects.

BASH (Biodigester Aided Solutions in Haiti)

Several students on the trip are working on a biodigester. It collects a mixture of gases, called biogas, from decomposing organic material. The methane in biogas can power cookstoves, refrigerators, and even engines. The remaining material is ideal as a low-cost fertilizer, a vital resource for subsistence farming in nutrient-stripped soils. In Haiti the team learned more about local agricultural practices and available resources, which will inform further research and design. This project has been awarded funding through University design competitions and the team is now pursuing an EPA grant to study the effect of enzyme additions on biodigestion.

Civil & Environmental Engineering Alternative Capstone

As part of their senior capstone course, the students were tasked with exploring options for alternative waste treatment in Haitian households. In Haiti they visited a project site and performed basic soils testing in the area. This experience will inform their spring semester, during which they will focus on treatment options that address challenges specific to Haiti, where the freshwater supply is very vulnerable to contamination. The students will explore alternative methods of waste disposal that don’t put the water table at risk.

Coteaux & Port Salut 

Coteaux is a coastal community where one of the Haitian students at HDSC, Dayana, grew up. Her family still lives there. During the trip our group visited Coteaux to see her family home, walk around the town, and visit a solar energy plant that powers three communities. The solar installation was still in disrepair following damage from Hurricane Matthew. Due to a lack of funds, even municipalities require extensive periods of time to rebuild after storms. The manager at the site was kind enough to give the group a tour of the facility and pointed out the backup generator that has replaced storm-damaged panels.

A major landmark in Coteaux is “500 Marches de la Médaille Miraculeuse,” or “500 Steps to the Miraculous Medal.” This site consists of an impressive set of 500 steps up to the top of a small mountain overlooking the south-western coastline of Haiti, with a sanctuary and statue at the top. The entire team, including Dr. Giles, our driver, and Dayana’s father all made it to the top. We paused at the peak for rest, reflection, and pictures while butterflies and lizards played around us. Upon our return to the base, legs a bit wobbly and lungs well worked, we turned back to see several goats jumping effortlessly on the stairs near the top.

Port Salut, the last destination of the week, boasts a beautiful beach. Last year when we visited Port Salut, it had only been a few months since Hurricane Matthew. The road was washed out and buildings were badly damaged. Trees were down along the coast and while swimming we would occasionally run into pieces of houses that had been washed into the ocean. This year the damage was still visible, but conditions were much improved and many businesses had reopened. It’s important that travelers learn just as much about all that is beautiful about Haiti as they do about the challenges that face our Caribbean neighbors. We always make time to appreciate the wonders of nature, cultural landmarks, and the growth of communities in the face of adversity.

Moving Forward

The Alternative Capstone team has now begun their Spring semester, and will travel to Haiti again in March. Those students who are working on the biodigester have had a very busy few weeks of research, writing, and revisions; their grant application to the EPA will be submitted in early February. With luck, they will be able to pay for their enzyme research and early installations using grant funds. Through donations from friends, family, and alumni, the Haiti Development Studies Center will continue to support student groups who choose to pursue projects based in Haiti.

For more information about the Haiti Development Studies Center or any of the projects discussed above, please feel free to visit www.uml.edu/Research/HDSC or contact Maureen Kelly at [email protected]

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TFM Civil Project Engineer, Maureen Kelly, promoting biodigesters in Haiti

Maureen Kelly, Civil Project Engineer

Maureen Kelly has a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and a Master’s degree in Structural Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. She was the Chi Epsilon Civil Engineering Honor Society Chapter President during 2014 and 2015. Maureen has a passion for engineering and for helping others. She has continued her involvement with the student engineering  group at UMass Lowell. Maureen had an opportunity in January to travel to Haiti with the group to promote biodigesters as a means of sanitation and sustainable energy production. We asked Maureen if she would share her experience with us, and with you. She was delighted to tell her story, and to share her knowledge about the situation in Haiti. Thanks to Maureen and to all the engineers in her group who are making a difference in the lives of the Haitian people, for a better future. We hope you enjoy Maureen’s story below.

For more information about Biodigester Aided Solutions in Haiti or the Haiti Development Studies Center, please contact [email protected] or visit www.uml.edu/research/HDSC.

 

Working Towards a Sustainable Haiti

by Maureen Kelly, TFMoran Civil Project Engineer

On January 15th, a small group of students, alumni, and professors from the University of Massachusetts Lowell landed in Port-au-Prince for a week of teaching and research in Haiti.  Among the group was TFMoran civil project engineer Maureen Kelly, who returned to work in the country for the first time since finishing school. Each traveler had specific goals for the week ahead. A geology professor carried suitcases of instruction materials, a mechanical engineer bore designs for a biomass grinder, and the civil engineering team prepared to inspect a biodigester at Pwoje Espwa, an agricultural teaching orphanage. Their home for the week was a research oriented facility in the southern city of Les Cayes.

The Haiti Development Studies Center (HDSC) was founded by UMass Lowell physics professor Dr. Robert Giles. Aiming to encourage sustainable change from within, HDSC allows educators and researchers access to an in-country “home base.” The use of the Center as a springboard helps to ensure that the technological solutions advanced by scientists and engineers are a good fit for the Haitian lifestyle and environment. Maureen, a UMass Lowell graduate, was first introduced to HDSC in the fall of 2016 through Biodigester-Aided Solutions in Haiti (BASH), a student group that aims to promote biodigesters as a means of sanitation and sustainable energy production. Combining the efforts of faculty, students, and alumni, BASH is working to improve access to biodigester technology.

 

Biodigesters for Fuel, Fertilizer, and Sanitation

Biogas, flammable gas produced by the biological breakdown of organic material, was observed by peoples as far back as the ancient Persians1 and biodigestion plants have been used to produce biogas for fuel dating back to 1850’s India2. Methane is the main component of biogas, and its combustion produces significantly less CO2 than the combustion of coal or oil3. It can be used to power generators, cooking stoves, and even converted vehicle engines. For communities in need of a sustainable fuel source, biodigesters offer a chance to produce methane reliably and responsibly.

In addition to the possibility of a sustainable fuel source, biodigesters can provide a means of sanitation. In Haiti, close to half of the population lacks access to clean drinking water and coverage of sanitation services is below 20%4. The capital city of Port au Prince, which hosts a greater population than Boston, has no public sewer system5,6. Waste of all types is commonly left in the streets and frequently blocks drainage structures. The mixture of surface runoff with trash and sewage allows contaminants to spread into streams and roadside ditches, which are utilized as sources of cooking, washing, and drinking water. Biodigesters can act as a tool for the disposal of organic material, and they can greatly reduce the pathogen load in a material like raw sewage7. The resulting slurry can be used to return vital nutrients to over-worked and eroded soils.

Preliminary research done by BASH confirms that biodigestion technology has a chance to become a viable source of fuel, fertilizer, and sanitation in Haiti. The tropical climate is ideal, the need exists, and the technology can be scaled to fit almost any size community. Locals need not wait for political stability and government investments in infrastructure to achieve a hygienic lifestyle, and the technology even has the potential to make money through biogas sales. The assessment performed by Maureen and others in January revealed that the existing biodigester at Pwoje Espwa is a poor candidate for rehabilitation. However, BASH quickly adapted to a new order of objectives as dictated by the needs on their project site.

The team has already begun the design of a new system that will use pig manure as a substrate. Heartened by the successful use of the concept elsewhere in the world, the team is preparing designs to build and test a prototype unit in Massachusetts over the summer of 2017. Once the team has gained the necessary data to instruct others in its construction and operation, the pig manure biodigester will be installed in Haiti and the biogas will power irrigation pumps. This pilot installation will be the basis for future iterations of BASH designs, marching ever closer to a sustainable sanitation tool for the people of Haiti. HDSC will play a pivotal role in the ability of BASH team members to develop their project into a reliable, socially acceptable, means of processing waste. The project combines technical hurdles with cultural roadblocks, making the in-country resources at HDSC a key to success.

 

The Haiti Development Studies Center: Progress through Education

BASH is not the only group whose work has been facilitated by HDSC. Teams affiliated with the Center have worked on varied projects including bio-sand water purification, primary school education, biomass fuels, and plastics-to-fuel conversion. These groups can stay in Haiti, near their project site, while they gather data, install equipment, and build personal relationships with in-country contacts. The Haitian staff and American facility director coordinate meals and transportation to make research in Haiti as safe and effective as possible. HDSC also employs interns, hardworking and academically talented young adults from Haiti who work at the Center. These interns, in addition to their regular duties, work overtime when guests are present. They assist visiting groups by serving as guides and translators.

The two interns currently working at HDSC are also UMass Lowell students, thanks to many months of preparatory work. When their local high school education fell short of the standards expected by American universities, Dr. Giles coordinated supplementary instruction to fill the gap. Today they are unique and resilient distance learners, completing college level courses despite the shortages of electricity, extreme weather events, and other challenges that come with everyday life in their home country. Even Hurricane Matthew, which tore a destructive swath through southern Haiti, did not deter these students from their studies.

 

Sustaining the Forces of Change

For those hoping to make a difference in the world, HDSC is a valuable asset and a symbol of international goodwill at its finest. Because instability reigns in Haiti, organizations with a consistent and agile presence have the best chance to effect lasting change. Through damaging storms, political unrest, and challenges in funding, Dr. Giles and his HDSC staff have built a facility that is well-regarded both at UMass Lowell and in its home city of Les Cayes. The Center is gathering attention among students, faculty, and alumni, as well as interested parties outside the University. Through participation and donations, this engagement is the force that keeps HDSC alive and able to facilitate progress through research and education.

 

References

  1. “Biogas.” US Department of Energy Federal Energy Management Program. https://www.wbdg.org/resources/biogas
  2. “A Short History of Anaerobic Digestion.” Penn State Extension. http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/energy/waste-to-energy/resources/biogas/links/history-of-anaerobic-digestion/a-short-history-of-anaerobic-digestion
  3. “Emission Factors for Greenhouse Gas Inventories.” United States Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-07/documents/emission-factors_2014.pdf
  4. “Water and Sanitation: Evidence for public policies focused on human rights and public health results.” Pan American Health Organization. 2011.
  5. “Mars 2015 Population Totale, Population de 18 Ans et Plus Menages et Densites Estimes en 2015.” March 2015. Institut Haitien de Statistique et d’Informatique (IHSI). http://www.ihsi.ht/pdf/projection/Estimat_PopTotal_18ans_Menag2015.pdf
  6. “QuickFacts Boston city, Massachusetts. United States Census Bureau. Accessed February 10, 2017. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/2507000
  7. Cuttica, John J. “Anaerobic Digester CHP.” Penn State Bioenergy Short Course Series. March 17, 2010. http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/energy/wood-energy/resources/2010-biomass-presentations/0106Digesters