Monroe Weber-Shirk is a firm believer in the radical idea that engineers should be promiscuous—with their ideas. “The way to really create innovations is to gather a network of partners who bring something to the table and are willing to share ideas freely. It’s like idea sex. Ideas come together and form new ideas,” says Weber-Shirk. “Patents are like condoms for idea sex. They slow the system down and prevent innovation.” Cornell Engineering has understood and supported Weber-Shirk’s unorthodox wish that the technologies he and his team create remain in the public domain. “We put our ideas on the web as soon as we know they work.”
It helps that the challenge Weber-Shirk has been passionately pursuing for 20 years is to provide clean water for drinking, cooking, and washing in areas without extensive centralized infrastructure or resources. The technology he and his students create is making the world a better place for some of the more than two billion people who lack access to safe drinking water.
After receiving both his Masters and his PhD from Cornell Engineering in the 1990s, Weber-Shirk founded the AguaClara engineering team at Cornell in 2005. The AguaClara team has more than 65 student members this year. Many are from graduate and undergraduate programs at Cornell Engineering, but members also come from the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Architecture, Art and Planning, Business Administration, and Agriculture and Life Sciences. Students who join the team innovate with existing hardware and processes, create new processes, invent new technologies, publish papers, and design water treatment plants that are now providing safe, clean water to more than 30,000 people in Honduras.
Team lead Tori Krug ’14 says, “We build using local materials so that it is possible for our water treatment systems to be a consistent source of clean water where the cards were previously stacked against the success of such projects. AguaClara was one of my primary reasons for coming to Cornell.” There are now eight AguaClara water treatment plants up and running in Honduras. “Each new plant is a step up from the one before it. And all of the design work is done by undergraduates and graduate students. We take our lab research results and write them directly into the design code,” says Weber-Shirk. “We publish in concrete.”
What they “publish” are gravity-powered, electricity-free, scalable water treatment plants built from locally-available materials. The plants are community-owned, simple to operate, and easy to maintain. “Private sector technology has incentive to create things that need parts and maintenance—the very sorts of things that are less likely to work in poor, isolated places. Our designs are the opposite,” says Weber-Shirk.
The AguaClara team is one of the more popular student project teams on campus. It gives engineers and others actual research experience at the leading edge of an essential field. Their results have real consequences in the world for tens of thousands of people. Tori Klug says, “AguaClara pushes the boundaries of municipal water treatment technology, allowing for treatment to be powered entirely by small differences in elevation instead of requiring electricity. This makes processes more efficient and more easily operated.” Says Weber-Shirk, “Having the constraints of the actual world applied to the science makes the science better—thinking about the real world takes you out of the lab and into reality.” “Reality” for this year’s AguaClara team members was a trip to Honduras in January to inspect several existing treatment plants and to prepare for the next plant to be built.
Support for much of the work the team has done over the past nine years has come from Cornell Engineering alumni Kenneth Brown ’74. Brown points out the dual advantages of the AguaClara team, “In giving to AguaClara, we have certainly been motivated by their mission to bring clean water to world communities most in need. But we have given primarily because of the incredible impact the program will have upon the education of a whole new generation of Cornellians.”
Duane Stiller ’84 ORIE and his daughter Cristina Stiller ’12 have been supportive of Weber-Shirk and the AguaClara team since they first heard about his work seven years ago. “We support AguaClara because they have a proven track record of success as well as real potential to move the needle forward on a huge problem,” says Cristina Stiller. “They have begun work in India lately, and we see tremendous potential for real impact around the world.” The Stillers have enjoyed great success with their retail real estate development firm, Woolbright Development, and they are firm believers in the idea that “those with much have much to give.” In the AguaClara team and its revolutionary technology, they see a way to have a huge impact on the lives of many people around the world.
Looking ahead, Weber-Shirk is hoping to grow the AguaClara team. “It is time to dream big,” he says, voice rising in excitement and eyes focused on a future he can clearly see. “We need to create a center at Cornell focused on water at the municipal scale. The AguaClara team is the world leader in small-scale municipal water treatment. The amount of knowledge we are creating is daunting. We need a more permanent infrastructure that will allow us to be the center of expertise in this technology so that it remains open source.”
Says supporter Ken Brown, “To me, the AguaClara project represents both what is best and unique about Cornell, and also what Cornell should continue to aspire towards. Students learn valuable lessons about the value of interdisciplinary thinking and teamwork, about innovation in the face of limited resources, and the tough realities of real-world implementation versus the convenient comfort of theoretical engineering exercises.” Weber-Shirk says, “There is no way one person could do this alone. I feel incredible gratitude for this opportunity. Cornell Engineering has provided the space and the support to allow this and that is no small feat.”