Integrated human practices
As the purpose of our project was to contribute to a solution to the growing water shortage problem, we started delving into the literature, contacted experts in the various fields (3D printing, atmospheric water collection, ...) and had frequent brainstorm sessions with the team. We soon realized that the water scarcity problem is bigger than previously thought and generally assumed. It gave us the necessary determination to continue the work with true passion and dedication.
Already from the beginning we had frequent conversations with Prof. Dan Fernandez, a leader in the field of atmospheric water collection. Since he was very enthusiastic about our project & philosophy we were even more convinced that we were right on track. Throughout the course of the project we used his expertise as a guide for the designing and fine tuning of our model. We were also very grateful to get in touch with Deepak Mehta from 3Dee, a major 3D printing company in Belgium. He shared his knowledge on 3D printing with us which led to significant improvements of the collector, more specifically on how the water is drained towards the centre of the shape. During our project we also developed a new type of 3D printing material, but in order to make this into a useable filament, we needed a filament extruder. However, industrial extruders are very unwieldy and out of our reach budget-wise. Luckily, Ali Oğulcan Dülger at Timelab graciously allowed us to use the filament extruder he built, in addition to providing us with useful information on filament extrusion parameters.
As the project went on, and after getting in touch with several humanitarian aid organisations (Rode Kruis-Vlaanderen, Protos, ... ), we had the growing believe that we could influence the lives of millions of people with the dewpal project. The programs of those organisations proof that providing a constant water supply is essential for improving the health, life expectancy and education of those who are born and raised in regions with water scarcity. Nevertheless, the situation in many countries remains very challenging. It happens that the collaborations with local authorities doesn't go without a hitch. Also, when there is no water available locally, it has to be provided via water tankers. This often takes a considerable amount of time and has a high environmental cost. We therefore definitely believe that we have the necessary ingredients (a cheap, small, easy to use & easy to stack device) in our dewpal recipe to become a game changer in the field of water collection.
Environmental and economical impact
Water scarcity is a major and growing problem worldwide. Around 1900 only 2% of the world population was under chronic water shortage while currently more than 1 billion people suffer from physical water scarcity and a quarter of the human population lack sufficient water due to economical reasons, such as the lack of infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers (Kummu et. al, 2010, Water Scarcity. International Decade for Action 'Water for Life' 2005–2015". un.org. Retrieved 20 October 2013).
Additionally, in regions of physical water scarcity the average income per capita is rather low which hinders the development of infrastructures to collect freshwater (for example by filtering seawater) (see following picture).
To improve the life quality of those billions of people, it is essential to create a cheap and efficient device to passively collect freshwater. This is exactly what we did with the dewpal project: our shape is printed in cheap but sturdy materials resulting in low production costs, especially in mass production. Additionally, the device can be produced locally, if 3D-printers and filament are available or can be provided, reducing environmental and economic costs.
The benefits of the wide use of our dewpal device are huge. Apart from providing easy and cheap access to clean drinking water, the sustainability and development of crops would also benefit enormously which in turn helps the economical situation in those countries. Also, since consuming polluted water and consequent diseases are a major hindrance in education, having access to sufficient clean drinking water will improve the level of education in those areas. The distribution of a cheap device for freshwater collection is a key step in breaking the vicious circle of poverty where billions of people are currently in.
Our dewpal device consists of a 3D printed shape with a screwcap so it can be attached to water bottles. By doing this, our device has a positive impact on reducing plastic waste, as empty plastic bottles can now be used as a water reservoir, prolonging their life as such. As we can print our 3D shape in many different sizes, bottles of all sizes and shapes can be used as a water reservoir.
As the biological function of the device can deteriorate over time, you will have to renew your dewpal from time to time, meaning we are still creating plastic waste. However, our shape team came up with a solution for this. The biological functional half sphere of your dewpal can be disconnected from your screwcap bottom, meaning the screwcap bottom could have a nearly endless life time, while only the biologically functional part would need replacement from time to time. This disconnected half sphere could then again be coated with bacteria or fusion protein to prolong its life even more. Note that this design isn't implemented yet by our shape group, but will be in the future.
It could be a nice option in the future to look into an easy way to coat the dewpal with the bacteria or protein, so that people can do it themselves at home. In this way it would be easier and more obvious that people actually re-use and recoat the dewpal device. Also, we should think of a way to make the protein more stable in warm climates, as water scarcity is more frequently found in those regions. Proteins can degrade at high temperatures so it should definitely be made more stable when using the fusion protein instead of the bacteria.
As millions of people are living in areas with water scarcity, our device could impact the life of all of them, especially when re-using the structure is possible and when the coating would be something that can easily be done at home.
How to obtain a more biosafe version of dewpal?
Our bacteria, Escherichia coli strain DH5a, Escherichia coli Top10 and Escherichia coli K-12 MG1655 are standard non-pathogenic laboratory bacteria belonging to risk group 1. According to this classification it is unlikely that they will cause human or animal disease.
In the dewpal project, these strains are genetically engineered. This brings along no additional risk as the engineered strains are merely used as ‘cell factories‘ in an enclosed environment. The cells themselves will not be used in applications, but only the cell-free bio-molecules they produce. Furthermore, the environment will not be exposed to these modified organisms thanks to contained use and standard GLP. Nevertheless, one should be aware of the public perception related to the use of GMOs for biotechnological applications, although it is in general less problematic compared to GMO plants or animals.
All experiments were carried out in a contained laboratory environment (GMO-class 2 laboratory). If containment fails, however, our project poses minimal risks for public and for the environment. Bacteria often have the capability of transferring genetic material, especially when self-transmissible vectors are used. As often done in practice, the vectors in our experiments are not self transducible, avoiding genetic material from being easily transferred.
In one approach of our project we have attaching modified E. coli Top10 cells to our water collector. As the water gets collected, there will be a small risk that the attached bacteria will also find their way into the collected water as the bond between the biotin on the shape and the streptavidin on the bacteria is a very strong. Streptavidin has a very high affinity for biotin (Kd = 10-14 to 10-15M). Our used bacteria strain is however a risk group 1 organism, with little to no risk for causing disease in humans. For our prototype, no further safety measures are therefore taken.
For future development, there are several paths that can be taken to make the collected water even more safe for drinking. The first could be to add a killing switch to the bacteria, or make the E. coli auxotrophic. Ideally, we could transplant the whole engineered system into a GRAS bacteria already used for feed application and probiotica such as Lactobacillus sp., and Bifidobacterium sp.