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NMSU students take first place in human-powered water distiller contest

Five New Mexico State University engineering students who barely knew each other in January teamed up to design a first-place-winning "human-powered water distiller" and will go to an international competition in November.



It's a winner: NMSU students show off the pedal-powered water distiller that took first-place in a regional design contest. Left to right are Juan Delgado, Richard Lujan, Diana Gonzales, Randy Powell and team leader Ken Ruble. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

dents won the distinction at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) District Design Contest held April 12-14 in Tulsa, Okla., at Oral Roberts University.

The ASME contest design theme was inspired by the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, after which people were surrounded by water but none of it was suitable to drink. Since electric power was not available, one possible solution would have been a human-powered still that could have purified enough water for drinking in an emergency situation.

Four NMSU mechanical engineering students, Randy Powell, Juan Delgado, Ken Ruble and Richard Lujan, all juniors, were joined by Diana Gonzales, a sophomore in civil engineering technology.

"We barely knew each other at the beginning of the semester," said Powell. "We all had skills in machining and design and put together a good team."

The project was part of a junior design class led by instructor Edgar Conley. Conley had the students select team members based on skills, without knowing whom they were selecting.

"The objective of the project was to put the students in a position where they were motivated by something other than grades," said Conley. "Frequently you can see them really perform, not that they weren't excellent in terms of previous academic accomplishments. But you can see their potential as problem solvers in this setting."

Gonzales, who was not a part of the class, brought a different set of skills to the project. "My father is a welder/fabricator, so I put the piece together and took it apart through the design process," said Gonzales. Her teammates said that as a civil engineer, she brought a different and valuable perspective to the project.

The team had eight weeks to prepare their still and a budget of $100. They surpassed their budget, but the costs were under $200. They consulted a local cycling shop about the ergonomics of their stationary bike. A local paint shop put the finishing touches on the device.

Through a friendly, on-campus competition among nine teams from Conley's class, the team was selected to go to the ASME regional competition.

Their design incorporated pure friction on a device that appears similar to a stationary bicycle. As a person pedals, a shaft rotates a disk on the bottom of a container that holds water, causing friction. When the water boils, creating vapor, it moves into a condenser that turns it back into a liquid, leaving behind any contaminants.

The NMSU team design was one of two in the competition that used friction. The other 10 teams used electrical generators that powered a heating element.

The four male team members pedaled the device for the one-hour period allotted at the competition to produce 161 ml of distilled water. Ruble hopes to increase the output to 200 ml before the international competition this November in Seattle.

"We hope to improve the efficiency," he said. "A physical conditioning program for the team members, especially myself, should also help considerably."

Although the class ends in May and most of the team members are not from Las Cruces, they will remain on campus to work on the project through the summer. They hope to add a graduate student to the group who can do computer simulations to analyze and improve the design.

"We learned that hard work pays off in the end," said Juan Delgado. "We put in hours and hours of time on the project."

Team member Richard Lujan, who owns and shows a custom car, insisted on making the final product aesthetically pleasing. It was his idea to paint the finished structure and polish the hardware. "Paying attention to all of the little details made a big difference in our design."

The effort paid off - not only did they win first place, but the judges said their distiller was the nicest one in the competition.

This is the second year in a row that a NMSU team won first-place honors in the regional ASME competition. Last year an NMSU team won with its design of a fishing pole actuator for use by quadriplegics. The team placed third in the international competition.