Water Resources Expert: A Journey to Gain Access to Clean Water on a Global Scale
June 2, 2017
The word "engineer" often implies innovation. By its very nature, engineering is creative and directed to the needs of humans. The interdisciplinary research of one innovative UTEP engineer has made it easier for people in less developed parts of El Paso County called colonias to gain access to clean water.
Colonias are small neighborhoods that are found along the U.S.-Mexico border. These communities often lack basic needs such as clean drinking water and adequate shelter. The residents have become accustomed to gathering their water and boiling it to remove any contaminants. Water scarcity and lack of access to sanitary water has become a global crisis that includes parts of the United States.
Professor Shane Walker, Ph.D., knows all too well how important water is, having been raised on a cotton farm in Lubbock, Texas. Walker has been improving the lives of people not only here in El Paso but in countries such as Ecuador and Honduras. He is an expert in water resources who earned his Ph.D. in environmental and water resources engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. After acquiring his degree, Walker joined the UTEP family. During his time at the University, Walker has been appointed to the Alumni Academy of Civil Engineers (AACE) Endowed Professorship and has been doing some groundbreaking work. His research focuses on water and wastewater treatment technologies and includes increasing water recovery, decreasing energy consumption, and recovering minerals from waste streams. He is a member of the National Science Foundation-funded Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) Engineering Research Center, which includes Rice, Yale, and Arizona State universities. Within the research center, he helps lead the Testbeds collaborations.
The goal of Walker's research collaborations are to help all populations gain access to clean water, not just in the U.S. but on a global scale. Walker collaborates to develop technologies that treat and reuse wastewater in remote locations at a sustainable and low cost. Walker is motivated by the fact that clean drinking water is a fundamental need of every human.
The United Nations estimates that over 600 million people in this world don't have improved drinking water sources, and over 2 billion people don't have basic sanitation services. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals emphasizes the importance of improving water and wastewater treatment. Walker has been studying water treatment since 2006.
"There is a huge resource in saline and brackish water," Walker said. "The amount of water that is brackish or salty is about 10,000 times the amount of freshwater that we have." Walker, whose goal is to treat water in an affordable and sustainable way, believes that recent developments in technology provide great opportunities to meet the clean water demand.
In 2015 Walker was part of a team that won second place at the international Desal Prize Competition. Innovators were asked to create a cost-effective, energy efficient and environmentally sustainable desalination process that could provide clean drinking water. Malynda Cappelle and Tom Davis of UTEP's Center for Inland Desalination Systems led the team to demonstrate a very efficient treatment system called Zero Discharge Desalination.
These innovators have not only created systems that could potentially end the water crisis, but they have also been showing communities in the colonias and Honduras how to take initiative in implementing these technologies. Walker, who teaches and collaborates with other engineers, scientists, and social workers feels that interdisciplinary research and teamwork is very important.
"I teach user-oriented design; you're always thinking about that person who is going to benefit from that technology," Walker said. "Research is great, but at the end of the day my primary priority is education and mentorship of the students involved in these projects." It is Walker's hope that within the years to come, the engineering field will take a much more holistic approach in terms of design. In doing, so the field will be more innovative in improving quality of life for people in less developed areas.
The University of Texas at El Paso
College of Engineering
Engineering Building Room A148
500 W University Ave
El Paso, TX 79968
Phone: (915) 747-6444
Fax: (915) 747-5437