UAF students take novel approach in design contest

Posted: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A group of engineering students from the University of Alaska Fairbanks took three basic components of soil and designed a simple wastewater treatment system they hope will take them to victory in a national contest.

The design is part of a competition to design a wastewater system for a small town with no current facilities.

The UAF students combined gravel, sand and silt in a model they hope will impress judges with its inventiveness. The environmental design contest in Las Cruces, N.M., challenged students from around the nation to solve one of several tasks.

The UAF students chose a problem that hits close to home: Developing a sustainable community off the grid.

The hypothetical town for the contest sits atop a mesa in the New Mexico desert. There are 200 homes, no running water, no power lines connecting the tiny town with the outside world.

''Just like an Alaskan village,'' said Dave Barnes, a UAF professor and adviser for the group.

Like so many problems in the Alaska Bush, simple solutions seemed to work best. The students extrapolated septic tank technology to a much larger solid waste lagoon to meet the town's needs.

The students' model for the contest produces a tiny amount of drinking water from wastewater. A system built to scale would provide about 500 homes with water.

Sand, gravel, silt. So simple.

''We're expecting people to come down there with more utopian ideas,'' group member Ben Angel said. ''We took a more realistic approach.''

While part of the assignment called for sustainability measures, the group felt that any village currently off the grid would need a petroleum-based boost to get powered-up initially. A diesel generator could serve as a backup once wind and solar power were harnessed.

''It turned out to be a lot of work,'' David Arvey said. ''There's so much to consider when you're developing a town.

''There were all these questions, and we tried to keep that in mind as we were going through. You can't just build it and say they will come.''

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