by Pam Lazos, wH2O Board Advisor
Can A Seed Save the World? Matt Lisle and Adrian Lievano are betting it just might. Matt and Adrian — let’s call them The Seed Guys — have just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.S.E. and a course of study in mechanical engineering. Most young adults in their position would be looking for, or starting a job in their chosen field. Instead, The Seed Guys have spent the last six months studying the Moringa oleifera seed and its application in the field of water treatment. As recipients of one of the President’s Engagement Prizes created by Penn President, Amy Gutman, Matt and Adrian received a $100,000 grant provided by Penn as a means of engaging students to find solutions to pressing societal issues. By giving this ambitious duo the time and space to turn their creativity loose without the worry of paying rent, we may all turn out to be winners.
Both Matt and Adrian have long felt that water, sanitation and hygiene, or WASH, was one of the toughest and most complex issues being addressed today. Over 3 million people die each year from WASH-related problems while over one billion people don’t have access to clean water. The summer the President’s Engagement Prize was announced, Matt and Adrian along with their friend Daniel Brooks, a Biology major, were sitting around brainstorming ideas on how to alleviate the most pressing WASH issues. When Daniel went to Kenya for a summer project to engage local communities with educational workshops and learn about the needs of the locals, he noticed that people were using the Moringa seed to purify small amounts (approximately 1 liter) of water. Interest piqued, he took the idea along with some seeds back to Penn and talked to his engineering buddies, Matt and Adrian. Within two months they had drafted the proposal and when the deadline for the grant application was pushed back three months, they created a rudimentary prototype with the found time. They crushed the seed of Moringa oleifera and used the coagulant protein as a simple filter just to see what would happen. A lot, it turns out. The water-soluble protein bound together with bacteria, clay, silt, and other toxins. The “chunks” (flocculent) settled, allowing it to be filtered out. The Seed Guys were able to remove 85% of e coli and 96% of Coliform bacteria on the first try. A stand alone coffee filter allows particles smaller than 10 microns to pass through, but when used in conjunction with the crushed Moringa seed it clarifies the water and prevents smaller bacteria and viruses from passing. The prototype has performed even better.
Since the initial work, Daniel took a Fulbright scholarship and is no longer active in the group while Matt and Adrian are going to spend the next year taking the pilot project to a full scale working model. This means de-hulling and crushing the seeds into a fine powder, constructing the filtration system, paying closer attention to the mechanics and ratios, and integrating the system into the community, all skills learned in their engineering classes. Matt and Adrian plan to travel to Kenya in September for two months to meet Community leaders such as Panian Segal, a local school teacher, and Doctor Steve Mutiso, a local doctor at the Ministry of Health. The community knows they are coming and through their non-profit, HOW Global, Inc., they have their arrival dates set up with the school. If all goes well, they will return in January for a four-month stint and really get to work. Neither of them have been to Africa before so it will be a first on many levels.
The Seed Guys maintain that the mechanics will be easy. After all, this is what engineers do; they break down complex problems into little steps and put it back together in the most efficient way. So how do these two engineers who both got their start as toddlers playing with legos plan to break this all down? They’ll start with a liter of water and go from there. Matt and Adrian both feel that jumping to a larger scale is simply a matter of looking at the number of seeds you need to achieve effective drinking water standards and developing the correct ratio which will be the key to success of a large-scale operation.
Initially, that will be determined through trial and error. In the homegrown version which Daniel learned during his first trip to Kenya and upon which this initial idea rests, locals de-hull and grind the seeds into a powder, and put two heaping spoonfuls of the powder into a small bottle of clean water. They agitate the bottle for 5 minutes, then filter it through a cloth into a 20 liter container of water. If you repeated this experirment, after two minutes of rapid stirring and another 10 to 15 of casual stirring, you would be one step away from clean, drinkable water since there is still one percent of bacteria that requires an additional purification step. Matt and Adrian are taking it to the next level.
Currently, they are using rainwater catchment which is exactly what it sounds like, rainwater caught in a big tank where it might sit for a while, holding not only water, but organics which tend to multiply after a time so they take that water and apply the seed technology.
Not only does the Moringa oleifera seed act as a flocculent, the tree, also known as the drumstick tree because of its long, thin branches and triangular seed pods, and the “Horseradish tree” because of the wood’s spicy taste, is a powerhouse of a plant. Moringa originated in India, but is also grown in Africa, Thailand, Taiwan and the Philippines and just about every part of the tree is used for something, making it worthy of its notoriety as a miracle tree. In Ayurvedic medicine, approximately 300 diseases are treated with the leaves. The leaves themselves have have more vitamin C than oranges (7x); more calcium than milk (4x); more vitamin A than carrots (4x); more potassium than bananas (3x); and more protein than yogurt (2x), with an even higher protein ratio than the inimitable soy bean which is itself on a short list next to meat and eggs, and all this without the allergies of soy. In addition, science has already discovered about 90 nutrients and counting; 18 of the 20 amino acids and eight of the essential amino acids present in meat. The oil from the Moringa tree doesn’t spoil so it is used both in cooking and cosmetics and, curiously, as a machinery lubricant. Nutritional supplements made from the plant give the user an energy boost. It also evens out blood sugar levels, relieves depression and anxiety, improves sleep, helps with skin disorders, acts as an anti-inflammatory, an anti-asthmatic, and on the list goes. Because the seed acts as a coagulant, pulling harmful bacteria to it, this same process can occur internally, making it a powerful tool in cleansing the body. The best part? It’s a fast grower and drought-resistant. Matt did a google search for the location of the Morgina tree and found that wherever people lacked access to clean water — Central American, South America, Africa, Asia — the Moringa tree grew. The Guys maintain that Moringa oleifera is underworked, given its capacity, and want to do what they can to change that.
The project officially started on June 30th which is when Matt and Adrian received the funding, but they unofficially started without the money way back in early spring. The award consists of $100,000 for project-related expenses, and another $50,000 living stipend for each of them which is much appreciated considering they will be flying back and forth to Kenya to test their project. The actual design work will be done here in Philadelphia while the implementation will take them to Kimana, Kenya, about 60 miles away from Hemingway’s Mount Kilimanjaro. Their goal at the end of the project is to have developed a system that will clean 300 gallons of clean drinking water a day, thereby serving the daily drinking water needs of over 300 individuals, and at the same time reduce diarrhea and the prevalence of water borne diseases. (The project focuses on drinking water only.) They also plan to take advantage of their semi-annual reporting requirements, and in fact, plan on reporting weekly because the Guys understand that projects such as theirs in the nascent stages require an element of crowdsourced enthusiasm to keep them going.
The Seed Guys have no shortage of enthusiasm. When Matt was a junior in high school, he wanted to do something off the beaten path so he cold called all the engineering professors at Penn and one of them responded. He was doing work on sedimentation and that got Matt started. As for Adrian, he started off in pre-med, but he also loved the mechanics of systems. He ended as a bio-engineering major, combining his interest in the human body and the inorganic world. Once there, it seemed a small leap to work on something he was passionate about which in this case was water. The Seed Guys already have partnered with an NGO, How Global, Inc., and have various mentors spanning multiple departments at Penn, including Associate Professor Paulo Arratia (mechanical engineering) Co-Founder and past President of the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative, Stan Laskowski, (environmental studies) and Professor Thomas Cassel (mechanical engineering). All serve as mentors, especially Professor Cassel who worked in the Peace Corps doing similar work at one time. He taught Matt last semester and they wrote a business plan for wind energy. Overall, The Guys have been lucky as there seems to be a good group of mentors, routing for them, and providing moral and practical support.
The seeds will come from Mr. Wonderful, a farmer the Guys have been working with in Kenya. Mr. Wonderful will plant and maintain the Moringa tree for them and supply them with all the seeds they need. Right now, they have a large box of seeds to experiment with, enough, at least, to get them through September. There’s also another source of seeds, Moringa For Life, a company in California that specializes in growing the Moringa tree and which is where they got their first batch of seeds which arrived in an 18x8x18” box and will be enough to get the project going. One seed is approximately 15mm in diameter, smaller than a fingernail. Once the seed is crushed into a fine powder, that powder can coagulate approximately one to four liters of water depending on how cloudy the water is. They have about 500 to 1,000 seeds in the box so at one seed per four liters of water, there’s a lot of room for error. The seed performs similarly to the inorganic version, aluminum sulfate, which is used in the water-treatment industry today and which purifies the water by pulling bacteria to it. Except that aluminum sulfate, which comes in solid blocks that are dropped it in the water, has been linked to many neurological diseases so switching to an organic material for water treatment could solve more problems than just water-related ones.
These possibilities are not lost on the Seed Guys. They want to revolutionize how we treat water on a global scale and have already incorporated as an LLC to show they are serious – EverWaters, LLC. During our conversation, Matt told the story of Elisha Otis, the founder of Otis Elevator. There he was with a new product and no one was buying. He wanted to get people to feel safe going on elevators so he told an audience in 1854 at the New York Crystal Palace that if the cable broke, the elevator would catch itself. He stood on the platform while someone chopped the cable above him, the elevator only fell a few inches, and guess what? Sales took off, doubling month after month until Otis became the name in elevators that it is today. This is where Matt and Adrian hope they are heading, and with a cadre of mentors standing behind, ready to catch them should they fall, it’s a sure bet they are going to get there.
The Seed Guys — they don’t want much. Only to change the world!