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Students help engineer change in Ghana

Last fall 13 Ohio State University students traveled to West Africa to use their technical skills to assist local communities in the Offinso North District of Ghana. The two-week trip and corresponding course marked the launch of the first Engineering Abroad and Service-Learning program to the African continent.

During the semester-long Engineering Service-Learning Ghana course, students researched, designed and prototyped various sustainable engineering solutions to meet community needs. Instructor Roger Dzwonczyk and graduate teaching associate Mariant Gutierrez Soto split the students into three teams to implement projects focused on water filtration, alternative energy using biogas, and solar energy and electric power.

An affordable water filter

Rachel Dubois, a third-year civil engineering major, was part of the biosand filtration group that created a sustainable and affordable way of filtering untreated water for the Atokrom village.

Contaminated with E. coli and salmonella, the village’s water caused typhoid outbreaks, which resulted in a significant amount of fatalities for children under five years old. 

After researching various systems, the students selected biosand filtering for its efficiency and because the needed materials are readily available in Ghana.

Biosand filters use multiple layers of gravel and sand to slowly filter water.

“You install a filter and say, “oh, they’re going to use it for water,” but you forget the fact they have to walk 30 minutes up and down a hill to get water in the first place. After the walk they would have to put it through the filter. That’s a total of two hours, just to get a bucket of water,” said Dubois.

She hopes to work with the Offinso North District Assembly (ONDA), the local governing organization, after graduation because she is passionate about making sure everyone has clean drinking water.

After successfully building one filter, the team constructed a second with ONDA staff and engineers to serve as a model that can be replicated in other communities.

For future projects, the team suggested that students could install smaller filters for individual family use to scale down the costs as well as promote sustainability and ownership within the village.

Cooking up a new fuel

Kave Anderson-Spells, a fifth-year biological engineering major, led the team that delivered sustainable biogas digester technology as a cleaner alternative cooking fuel to the Offinso North District.

“Biogas is a combination of a bunch of different gases, like methane, which can be used to heat homes and even generate electricity” said Anderson-Spells.

The team built a 1,000-liter biodigester that uses human waste to produce methane gas for cooking.

Ghanaians typically burn firewood for cooking, but the wood smoke contains known carcinogens. And during the rainy season, wet firewood cannot be lit. The biodigester is a way to better locals’ health and the environment, plus provide a cleaner, more sustainable fuel from organic matter.

The best things about this technology, Anderson-Spells said, is that it’s free, sustainable and can be profitable while still bettering communities.

All of the parts for the project came from nearby villages and the students collaborated closely with ONDA officials to ensure that the biodigester will be maintained.

“An important part of this project was educating and training people on how the biodigester works so that the community knows why we were there and what was going on,” he said.

The team also helped establish a partnership between ONDA and Techiman Processing Company, a tomato processing company, to explore future projects to generate gas and electricity for the district’s several thousand residents.

Pedal power

Christiana Fote, a fourth year civil engineering major, worked closely with her group on four smaller projects to supply standby power and alternative energy to Techiman, a village 30 minutes away from the Offinso North District.

The biggest part of their project was creating a bicycle power generator, which was designed with a local artisan and made out of metal.

More than 80 percent of people in Ghana own cell phones, but charging them can be problematic. The generator provides a reliable, sustainable way to charge cell phones in the village.

“The two main points of all these projects, but specifically ours, is that you want to make sure that you’re do something that the villagers want and to make sure you're using local materials,” said Fote.

The basic design was originally used for a service project in Honduras, but the students modified it to make it skinnier and more sustainable. The bike generator included a car alternator, used as a motor, which is connected to a 12-volt battery; an inverter; and a converter to change AC to DC power with a plug for a USB port.

A fundamental part of the bike generator was the wiring process. Despite being a tedious task, the team was able to package the wires into a small metal box that housed all the components perfectly with a switch on the outside to turn the generator on and off, Fote explained.

“Solar power is useful because you don’t have to do much to get energy, you just have to maintain it, said Fote. “But at the same time solar panels are incredibly inefficient that's why sources of standby power are really helpful.”

As a future improvement, the team suggested integrating a solar panel to supplement power and keep the battery charged.

Fote said she didn’t see herself getting involved in research previously, but this experience showed her how small improvements can make a big impact.

“You can either make a cellphone a millimeter thinner for a company or you can help someone get running water,” she said.

For more information about the College of Engineering's international programs, visit

by Kyjah Coryat