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Alum tackles the water crisis one pump at a time

Greg Bixler (pictured above, wearing hat) co-founded non-profit Design Outreach, which aims to create life-sustaining solutions for developing countries. Greg Bixler (pictured above, wearing hat) co-founded non-profit Design Outreach, which aims to create life-sustaining solutions for developing countries. Greg Bixler never set out to build a groundbreaking water pump or start a humanitarian engineering organization. But once the mechanical engineering alum heard about the life-threatening water issues the world’s poorest inhabitants face, he couldn’t turn away.
 
It all started with a short-term mission trip Bixler took to central Asia in 2006. He was inspired by residents' ingenuity with using everyday objects to solve problems—such as a car being used as a retaining wall.

The trip sparked an idea, Bixler said, of bringing together experts from all disciplines to create a problem-solving think tank for humanitarian issues. When he returned to work, he found that many of his colleagues at Battelle wanted to join him.

It also inspired him to change the master's project he was working on at Ohio State to something that would help others.

“I started working with a nonprofit in the Central African Republic and asked them what kind of projects we might be able to work on together. We came up with a palm oil press that, essentially, is a more-efficient way of creating oil from palm fruit," Bixler said. "That was my first exposure to this world of humanitarian engineering.”

After successfully working together on the press, the team wanted to do more. 

“So we went back to our partners in Africa and asked them, ‘If there was one problem we could solve for you, what would it be? What would save a lot of time and money and help a lot of people?’ And almost immediately we started hearing about water pumps,” Bixler said. 

More than 780 million people worldwide lack access to clean water and changing that statistic isn’t as simple as it might seem, he explained. In many villages the water table is too deep for traditional hand pumps. Even if water is accessible, the commonly used pumps tend to be unreliable, sometimes breaking after only a few months of use. 

Bixler’s team was asked to find replacement parts for these pumps.

“We looked far and hard and couldn’t find anything,” he said. “So we had a choice to make, do we ignore the problem, or do we do something about it?” 

They decided to build a better pump. 

Bixler founded Design Outreach together with Abe Wright, an engineer at Johnson & Johnson, and serves as CEO. The non-profit’s goal is to create life-sustaining solutions for developing countries. 

More than 40 active volunteers—including engineers, scientists and professionals from Ohio State, Battelle and other companies—donate their time and talents to run all aspects of the organization, from research and development to promotion and fundraising. 

Installing a LifePump in MalawiInstalling a LifePump in Malawi.The team built and delivered their first prototype water pump to the Central African Republic in 2011. After that real-world test, they improved the design and installed their next-generation LifePump in the Central African Republic in 2012. Besides improved reliability, the LifePump’s major advantage is that it can pump water from more than 500 feet deep, Bixler explained, unlike traditional hand pumps that tap out at 162 feet.

Since partnering with Christian humanitarian organization World Vision to deliver LifePumps on a wider scale, Design Outreach has installed two pumps in Malawi, in villages whose residents previously had to walk more than one mile just to find water. As part of a larger scale pilot program, eight additional pumps will be sent to Malawi this spring, followed by 20 more to four other African countries by the end of summer.

“The water that people were gathering and drinking looks like what we’d consider a mud puddle here,” Bixler said. “Their productivity is very low, because they—and it’s usually women and children—are spending so much time and energy just getting the water they need.”

Most of the LifePump’s manufacturing happens in Ohio. Design Outreach's partners include Seepex, Inc., located near Dayton, which supplies the progressive cavity pump for each pump. Exact Machine Corporation in Sunbury helps manufacture and test the pumps. Many other partners and donors provide funding and in-kind services.

In the future, Bixler and his team plan to integrate simple devices that use remote sensing to monitor the performance of each pump. But for now they’re focused on raising enough funds to send 100 LifePumps to Africa. For this so-called Hundred Pump Project, Design Outreach is raising $9,200 per pump to cover building the hardware and installation tools, training local personnel on installation and maintenance, and developing a spare part network. World Vision will cover the cost to ship and install each pump—which is a significant match, Bixler said.

Around the same time Design Outreach was getting started, Bixler decided to return to academia and pursue humanitarian engineering work full-time. 

“I really wanted to inspire students to go out into the workforce and come up with solutions for the world’s poorest people,” he said. “I find there’s tremendous interest among college students to do this kind of work. So many of them want to use their engineering skills to serve others and solve real problems."

Today, the three-time Buckeye grad (’03, MS ’07, PhD ’13) is a full-time lecturer for Ohio State’s First-Year Engineering Program teaching both the standard two-semester sequence of courses, as well as the Humanitarian Engineering Scholars section.

Bixler’s passion for humanitarian engineering is also displayed through his collaborative work with other faculty on humanitarian engineering course development and his past service as an advisor to the engineering service learning program and the Ohio State Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders. 

“It’s exciting to see the impactful intersection Greg has found in our First-Year Engineering Program that leverages his passion for humanitarian engineering,” said Howard Greene (MS ’88, electrical engineering; PhD ’93, biomedical engineering), director of K-12 outreach for the College of Engineering and a Design Outreach board member. “He routinely gets the opportunity to talk one-on-one about Design Outreach and encourage the next generation of students to use their engineering skillsets to develop solutions for the poor and underserved.”

Design Outreach has benefited from an outpouring of Buckeye support, Bixler said, from employees and alumni volunteering their talents to being invited to participate in university events such as the Alleviating Poverty through Entrepreneurship Summit. He hopes to strengthen those ties even further by creating a student internship program in the future, which would primarily involve Ohio State students.

The two sides of his work complement each other well, he said.

“I see myself as an educator as well as a practitioner, which is where Design Outreach falls in. Academics are exciting and fun with the energy of the students and the learning experience, but it’s not the deliverable.”

For other Buckeye engineers who want to use their talents to tackle humanitarian issues, Bixler has two words of advice.

“Join us. Our model is having, essentially, champions in different companies that we form a team around. When we tackle a project, we split it up and give chunks to different teams within different companies,” he said. “We could potentially be working on a dozen projects, all over the world in just a few years, which is really exciting.”

Written by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, clevenger.87@osu.edu