SFHS grads receive SCU's Humanitarian Award for designing bike-powered purification system

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Jonathan Keyes/Special to the Town Crier
A local resident in Patzun, Guatemala, tests out the Pedal 4 Purification, a device designed by a team including former St. Francis High graduates.

Since he was young, St. Francis High School graduate Matt LoGrasso said he enjoyed math and science, and decided he wanted to pursue a career in engineering.

His friend Jonathan Keyes, another St. Francis alumnus, said he wasn’t always so sure of his career path and was initially interested in other fields of study. However, after attending an engineering fair, Keyes said he was convinced that pursuing engineering would give him the tools he needed “to help make a change in this world.”

Keyes did just that. He and LoGrasso, 2019 graduates of Santa Clara University’s mechanical engineering program, received the school’s Humanitarian Award for developing a bicycle-powered water purification system, dubbed Pedal 4 Purification, for a community in Guatemala.

The pair, along with fellow mechanical engineering students Cory Yamagata and Coleton Rodd, developed the device in their senior design class. All senior engineering students must develop a working prototype by the end of the school year.

“We came together … over the common goal of inventing a project that could help a developing community with the hope of being able to travel and implement it,” Keyes said.

Initially, the group hit a rough patch after several projects fell through at a “critical point” in the process, according to LoGrasso.

“Even though we no longer had a project, we were confident in one thing: All of us wanted to create a frugally innovative and socially responsible product that we could personally implement in a community of need,” he said. “We were adamantly against developing a prototype that would sit in a garage or be thrown out after the academic year had ended.”

Pedal plan takes shape

Eventually, the team came in contact with Maya Pedal, a nonprofit organization based in San Andres Itzapa, Guatemala, and decided to design a bicycle-powered water purification system for the nearby community of Patzun.

With a plan in place, the team got to work designing, manufacturing and implementing its prototype – all within a six-month period and using only locally sourced materials.

“It was very motivating for us to have received news … that if we worked hard enough on our design, we could have the opportunity to travel and implement our product in a small community in Guatemala,” LoGrasso said. “Whenever we encountered a rough patch in the manufacturing or design processes, we still had that intrinsic motivation to fall back on to make our product as fool-proof, robust and user-friendly as possible so that we could bring clean drinking water to people in need.”

In the spring, with their prototype complete, the team traveled to Guatemala to donate their finished product to the community. When they arrived, it was clear the community needed help, LoGrasso said.

In addition to living in poverty – residents practice subsistence farming, earning $5.50 per day, according to Dave Renfrow of Maya Pedal – there was no affordable water source in Patzun, except the muddy brown water wells that caused digestive problems. This led to a dependence on soft drinks, to the extent that “agua” referred to Coca-Cola, while “agua pura” referred to filtered water, according to Keyes.

After reassembling their water purification device in Patzun, the team was equipped to address the challenge. The foursome brought the device to the well and showed local residents how to use it.

“It was received so much better than we expected, not that we had low expectations either,” Keyes said. “They loved the design and put it to use right away. As we were assembling it on-site, the whole community took interest and came to check it out and learn how to use it. Within three weeks of returning, they had constructed two more systems and were adapting them to the specific needs they had. It was really amazing to see that our hard work was actually causing a real beneficial impact in a community.”

Mario Juarez Siquinajay, Maya Pedal’s CEO, noted that the community “reacted with emotion, admiration and gratitude.”

“Although bicycles are common for transportation, a machine that pumps and purifies water is a wonder,” he said.

To watch videos of the team implementing its water purification system, search “Matt LoGrasso” on YouTube.

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