Ancient filtering system brings clean water to poor and others

July 08, 2013

What do American citizens who live along the Texas/Mexico border, survivors of natural disasters, and residents of impoverished communities around the globe have in common? They all suffer from inadequate access to clean, safe, potable water. Artist, professor, and activist B. Stephen Carpenter II, professor-in-charge of Penn State’s Art Education program, advocates that one solution to providing drinkable water is both simplistic and affordable and based on an ancient technique.

Basic understanding of human physiology reveals that clean, safe water is not a luxury, but a vital life-sustaining necessity. According to Carpenter, approximately 5,000 children worldwide die every single day due to water-related diseases and issues. One in six people worldwide — 894 million — don’t have access to safe clean water. Yet the resources to provide potable water exist in nearly every region of the world, accessible to all people: point-of-use ceramic water filters.

Earliest understanding of first human cultures revolved around the discovery of clay pots to store food and capture water. The technique of mixing clay with combustible material is ancient. “Materials needed to make the pots are available almost everywhere in the world, leading to the understanding that you don’t make the pots here and ship them,” Carpenter said. “Go to the site and teach the local artists to make the pots.”

Carpenter learned how to make ceramic water filters from artists Richard Wukich and Manny Hernandez, and has demonstrated the process nationally and internationally. As seen in this YouTube video made while Carpenter was a professor at Texas A&M University (TAMU), ceramic water filters are made by combining clay with a combustible material such as sawdust, forming the clay and other material into a bell-shaped, upside-down filter, allowing the filter to air-dry, then firing in a kiln. When contaminated water is poured into the filter and percolates through the clay vessel, purified, potable water drips out the bottom into a five-gallon plastic bucket. The ceramic filters remove 95 percent of microbiological particulate matter in the water. If the filter is coated with colloidal silver, a natural anti-microbial that renders the disease causing agents inert, the efficacy of the filters increases to essentially 100 percent.

Carpenter estimates that the cost of ceramic water filtration using a point-of-use filter is one of the least expensive methods of filtration available -- costing about $15 to $20 (based on U.S. dollars) for a filter, plastic bucket with a spigot, and lid, and providing a family of four access to water as long as the water supply is replenished twice a day. With proper maintenance and use, the life span of a single filter can be up to five years.

The TAMU Water Project began when Carpenter formed a consortium with colleagues at Texas A&M. It was a fusion of scientist, artist, engineer, philosopher, and community advocate, all coming at the same problem from different perspectives: how to produce affordable, safe drinking water for at-risk populations. It started in Carpenter’s two-car garage where TAMU faculty and students would meet for Filter Fridays to either make filters or brainstorm ideas to further expand or improve the process.

When Carpenter, who earned a masters of education in 1989 and a doctorate in art education in 1996, came to Penn State in 2011, he immediately set out to bring the knowledge of ceramic water filters to the campus and community by creating Reservoir Studio,, a partnership between the Penn State Art Education Program, community advocates on and off campus, and School of Visual Arts students and faculty whose mission includes the production and research of and education about point-of-use ceramic water filters. In 2012, members of the studio showed how to make the filters in a live, public performance in front of the Palmer Museum of Art, titled "Collaborative Creative Resistance."

Using the international organization FilterPure as a guidepost, the continuing mission of Reservoir Studio is to demonstrate the ease and cost effectiveness of the process to more people in the collegiate and community setting, in the hopes that lessons learned will ripple outward to reach beyond classroom walls. Reservoir Studio, TAMU Water Project, and FilterPure are all members of the Potters Water Action Group Carpenter works to develop curriculum with K-12 educators to incorporate in their classrooms as an interdisciplinary effort to educate children about local water sources, water conservation, water pollution and water treatment.

“What I am interested in as an artist and educator is that children get sick because of waterborne diseases. If you’re sick, you can’t go to school. If you take away that element of danger by making available clean, safe drinking water, you start to change notions of education in communities,” Carpenter says. “If people no longer have to spend a majority of each day traveling great distances to obtain potable water, this new equation changes the dynamics of living, allowing individuals opportunities to focus on providing a better, healthier life for themselves and their families.”

  •  Students measuring dry clay and sawdust. Photograph by Steven Rubin.

    Reservoir Studio: Students measuring dry clay and sawdust.Photograph by Steven Rubin.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Reservoir Studio: Students mixing dry clay and sawdust. Photograph by Steven Rubin.

    Reservoir Studio: Samantha Bachman (art education and ceramics undergraduate student) and Lillian Lewis (art eductation doctoral student) mixing dry clay and sawdust.Photograph by Steven Rubin.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Reservoir Studio: B. Stephen Carpenter, II moving a ceramic water filter, with student. Photograph by Steven Rubin.

    Reservoir Studio: B. Stephen Carpenter, II moving a ceramic water filter, with Samantha Bachman (art education and ceramics undergraduate student).Photograph by Steven Rubin.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Reservoir Studio: B. Stephen Carpenter, II holding a ceramic water filter.  Photograph courtesy of Greg Kwedar.

    Reservoir Studio: B. Stephen Carpenter, II holding a ceramic water filter. Photograph courtesy of Greg Kwedar.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated July 09, 2013