As part of an ongoing effort to help villagers in South America, a group of VMI cadets is spending the summer working on ways to give them clean water. Their solution is unconventional, to say the least.
From South America to Haiti and beyond, VMI's Engineers Without Borders program sends cadets and faculty to some of the most impoverished areas in the world to lend a helping hand.
One of those places is a small village in the mountains of Bolivia called Pampoyo.
"Because of all the mining, they have heavy metal contamination in their streams," said engineering professor Major Tim Moore. "And they drink directly from those streams. And because of that they end up with a lot of health problems."
Moore leads a group of students there each year, and their primary focus has been giving the people there access to clean water.
"So one of the ideas that came to mind was, 'Hey, what about carbon filtration?' We know that works. We use carbon filters in Brita filtration [systems]" Moore said.
Because of the elevation there, they don't have a lot of sources of carbon, like plants and other woody materials. But what they do have a lot of is llama manure.
This summer, cadets Amber Joyner and Alexandria Gagnon's job is to figure out how to take said llama manure and turn it into a working filtration system.
"I did not know that you could do that," Joyner said, "but I think it's absolutely amazing that something that's so readily available in that country is something that can help save liveS and can promote health."
First, they burn the manure at 350 degrees Celsius for several hours to kill any bacteria and other bad stuff it may contain, then they grind up what's left - a material with lots of carbon called biochar - and add it to the water.
"A really small amount can clean a whole liter of water," Gagnon said.
To show us how it works, they added a chemical to the water that turns it blue, which represents the metal in the water.
Once they mix in the biochar, the water is shaken, typically for 24 hours in a machine, but only 30 minutes for our story.
They then pour it through another filter to remove the biochar, and sure enough, it's clear.
"I really think this is the definition - the quintessential definition - of sustainability," Moore said.
Using this process they've been able to remove more than 90 percent of iron, copper, and lead contaminants in water.
But that's in a lab, not the mountains of Bolivia.
"They don't have a $10,000 oven. We do," Gagnon said. "So we need to figure out a way they can do this themselves and then how are they going to filter the carbon out of the water."
They're optimistic they'll have that figured out by the time they head to Pampoyo next spring.