Student to lead service initiative to create water purification device

PLAINVIEW – Somewhere between testing materials and time trials in the science lab, Luke Loetscher had an epiphany.

A senior biology major at Wayland Baptist University, Loetscher said he’s long known he was called to missions work and wanted to use his scientific skills in that work. Now, in the midst of his honors research project, Loetscher is seeing the big picture of what God has planned for him.

“I didn’t know at first why I was supposed to come here, but this is just a glimpse of why,” said Loetscher, a native of Cheyenne, Wyo. “I hope we’ll be able to do great things using this technology.”

To that end, Loetscher is planning an informational meeting in the Moody Science Building, Room 110, on Sept. 21 at 1:30 p.m. to discuss an initiative to produce and distribute water purification devices for countries in which impure water is a major issue.

The research project started as a class assignment working with other students on developing the best method for purifying water using titanium dioxide. Luke specifically has been working on a photocatalytic system – one that uses light as the catalyst for the purification reaction.

His models so far have ranged from a small reactor placed inside a water bottle that uses an LED (light-emitting diode) to a larger model in which water is run over a flat surface coated with titanium dioxide. Loetscher’s plan, however, is to develop a portable version that could be easily transported and shipped to areas of need.

To get to that point, he said, more research is ahead in order to determine the best conduits to use to get the maximum reaction for the minimum time and cost involved. Other factors are how easily reproduced the purifiers can be in the areas of need, which Loetscher said will primarily be undeveloped or underdeveloped countries.

“We still have a lot more to do, to make better reactors and find out what they will work best on,” Loetscher said. “We also need to check for any byproducts that might occur in the degradation process.”

The meeting is primarily to recruit helpers for the research project and the other parts of the effort that will follow once a suitable model is found. Loetscher said besides scientifically minded people who will work with the research and development end of the project, he also needs to recruit economists, marketing experts, missionaries, sociologists and linguists who will all play into the implementation stages of the project.

“We need a lot of people to do this, and that’s a great picture of the body of Christians,” Loetscher said. “We all have a role to play in serving God.”

In his work to this point, Loetscher has already enlisted help from fellow students, including some from the other side of the Moody Science Building. Jerod Clopton, a May 2007 graduate who is now working on a graduate degree in mathematics at Texas Tech, was a key player.

“When Luke approached me to help use my math skills to do some modeling for this real-world problem, I was excited,” Clopton said. “I modeled the behavior of the light within the tubes he had created, which will allow them to optimize the LED tubes and make them more efficient.”

One of Loetscher’s models used a cartridge inside a water bottle that filtered the water through the tube, which was imbedded with LEDs to create a speedy reaction with the titanium dioxide.

The social research is another crucial aspect to the project, Luke said. The group will need to identify the location and people groups with the most significant water needs, establish contacts there to determine cultural needs and identify the nature of those needs as well, then develop technical solutions that are appropriate for the people group. That’s where sociologists and missionaries from those regions will come in handy.

Though the road ahead will be long and arduous for Loetscher and those who come aboard with him, he is certain the cause is vital enough to press forward.

“According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion people in the world lack access to an improved water source, including 55 percent of rural Africa,” Loetscher said. “Another 1.8 million die from diarrheal diseases, and most are children under five.  More than 88 percent of this disease is attributed to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and hygiene.”

Loetscher said after spending the summer of 2006 on mission work in the Philippines, he realized the vast resources of the United States – including technology and knowledge – could make a real impact on those regions. But the legwork behind that is vital. Knowing who needs what, where they are, what resources they currently have and how economically feasible the products will be are all key to the success of the initiative. Loetscher’s enthusiasm is already keeping the fire fueled.

“It excites me to think that this project we started as a student research project could be something we could send out to help other people,” he said.

The Friday meeting is open to the public, especially to those who would like to be involved with the purification initiative. For more information, contact Dr. Joel Boyd, associate professor of chemistry at Wayland and the supervising faculty member, at (806) 291-1125 Loetscher can also be reached through Boyd or by email