Profile – Tricia Compas

When It Comes to Drinking Water Treatment, It’s in the Bag

Tricia Compas demonstrates a prototype of the Polytech Waterbag used to supply drinking water in disaster relief efforts.

As a youngster, Tricia Compas grew up in a unique environment that would later shape her outlook on life and her engineering career as well. She spent much of her childhood in Seoul, South Korea, where her father worked as a nuclear engineering consultant. Born in Glendale, Arizona, she lived in Korea twice for a total of six years, between ages 3 and 4 and later 8 to12.

“The things I remember to this day are seeing the poverty in the city of Seoul,” Compas recalls. “Walking through the crowds downtown, you see a lot of blind people begging, and you see people with no legs, and so they’re dragging themselves from the city streets begging for money. And those kinds of things really caught me when I was in elementary school and just trying to understand why that was happening.”

Now 24, Compas is about to finish her master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Her specialty comes in drinking water treatment, allowing her to help those less fortunate in developing countries as well as victims of disasters such as floods and earthquakes. As arguably her most notable achievement, she is developing a device known as the Polytech Waterbag that allows disaster victims to obtain usable water quickly.

This scenario almost didn’t happen because during high school in Arizona, Compas first thought about psychology as a career. But then she changed her tack and looked into the math, sciences, and applied engineering field — claiming her parents didn’t force her — and headed in that direction. She had an aunt who went to Cal Poly, influencing her decision to go there, and she also chose it because it was smaller. “You have a lot of exposure with your professors, a lot of one-on-one time,” as she puts it.

She started her first quarter at Cal Poly in industrial engineering thinking she could help less-fortunate people there. Then she realized she could do that more in civil engineering and quickly changed her major. At first, she envisioned that as being more about structures like bridges and roads. But, she says, “Then I got exposed to the resources side and more into the treatment side of environmental engineering.”

This came largely through an event that would cement her path to helping others in developing countries. “Toward the end of the spring quarter, there was a meeting held in the civil department about Engineers Without Borders. A representative from Colorado who was a Cal Poly alumnus came and spoke about the opportunity,” she recalls. “I thought ‘that’s what I want to do.’ He said at the end of the meeting, ‘OK, who wants to take it on and start a student chapter?’ About 40 students attended, and nobody raised their hand, and as a naive freshman, I raised my hand not knowing what I was getting involved with. A couple of seniors and myself figured out how to start the chapter that summer, got an advisor on board, and that next school year we went to a conference in Denver at EWB and actually started the chapter following that.” She later served as treasurer and president.

Her involvement with EWB had Compas working on the Mae Nam Khun, Thailand Drinking Water Project as co-project manager. She collaborated with a team of students, professional engineers, missionaries, translators, and villagers to design and construct a drinking water treatment system. She traveled to Thailand to implement the system in 2005 and returned in 2006 to assess it, further test the quality of water, and analyze the watershed. She returned again in 2007 to assess for further water treatment projects. “That exposure with Engineers Without Borders helped me see the big picture of why you study engineering,” she relates.

On a project with Engineers Without Borders in Thailand, Compas takes measurements for a new water treatment system.
Credit Stephen Forbes

In late 2007, Compas met civil and environmental engineering professor Tryg Lundquist, and he offered her the opportunity to take on the Polytech Waterbag as a master’s thesis project. Having nearly attained a B.S. in civil engineering, she converted to 4+1 blended program, meaning she would stay an extra year (actually, it took a year and a half) and will get her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the same time. “I realized I can stick around and get a little more knowledge, especially in the environmental water treatment side,” she says. She had thought it would be preferable to do graduate work at another school to get a different experience, “but I knew this opportunity probably wasn’t going to come around again in another setting.”

Compas worked on developing the water bag under the guidance of Lundquist along with a multidisciplinary team of students, advisors, and organizations. The team received a $14,500 Clinton Global Initiative University Grant through Former President Clinton. It addresses a well known problem disaster rescuers and relief personnel face. The long, cylindrical 10-liter bag allows victims to scoop up water from flood zones and other sources where it’s potentially contaminated and then add purifying chemicals to make it drinkable. You can fill the bag in as little as three inches of water, and it will come with enough chemical packets to provide water to last a family of four 10 days. The bag serves as a container for carrying the water and keeping it clean, as it can be carried like a backpack and has an integrated filter.

Deploying water bags should prove quicker than using the 5-gallon plastic jugs or jerry cans normally used. “Those are helpful, but they’re very expensive, and they don’t provide a means of treatment. They do have chlorine packs and other things out there, but we were trying to think of a way to make it efficient where you have a treatment and storage and a transport function all in one,” Compas explains. Speed is important because it can take days to deploy a larger water treatment system.

The idea for the project came from Lundquist, who submitted a winning application to Cal Poly’s Innovation Quest 2007 contest along with two Cal Poly students. As Lundquist recalls, “I thought personal chemical treatment packets would be useful but then found that Proctor and Gamble had recently started manufacturing them. However, P&G did not yet have a compact treatment and storage vessel.”

“When I got on the project, we made some contacts with the Red Cross and Centers for Disease Control and shared this idea to make sure we weren’t off base with it, and they definitely said ‘yeah, we do need something to make it more efficient in the disaster relief effort,’” Compas says. “That helped solidify things and confirm that we should move forward with the prototyping and experimenting process.”

“Coming from a civil engineering background, I didn’t know much about plastic and how to make a prototype. We have a good plastics and packaging department in the business college at Cal Poly, and a professor there advised on plastics to use and how to make a simple prototype for proof of concept,” Compas says in explaining the prototyping process. “Basically, we settled on drop cloth plastic you can get from Home Depot for painting. And once we got that, how do you incorporate a valve, a closure, and all that?” The team chose a low-density polyethylene material for prototyping, and they use an impulse sealer to seal it together.

Professor Tryg Lundquist originated the idea for the Polytech Waterbag

Then, Compas had to come up with an optimal treatment method for the bag using P&G’s chemical coagulant and disinfectant called PUR. She fine-tuned the mixing and treatment process, and after 12 experiments, they had it down: you put one PUR chlorination-flocculation packets into a bag of water and hang it vertically for 30 minutes before drinking. After microbial testing, Lundquist states, “The water bag with the PUR packets has been able to treat muddy, bacteria-contaminated water to disaster relief drinking water standards.”

With that done, now the team turns its attention to patenting, a small production run, and field testing the water bag. They’re talking to plastic manufacturers in tweaking the design, trying to come up with the right combination of cost, durability, features, and storage life. With plans to field test next year, they’re also in contact with a research group that specializes in water treatment in developing countries. Lundquist remarks, “The big question for the water bag is how people who have never seen it before will use it.  Will a person in an extremely stressful disaster situation be able to follow the pictographic instructions correctly?”

Soon, another grad student will come on the project, while Compas will finish writing her thesis by the end of the summer. “I’ll try to stay involved even when I’m done, especially with some of the manufacturing and field testing,” she says.

When she graduates, Compas says she plans to move north to the San Francisco area. “There’s a big debate about whether I should stay on the humanitarian side or get a consulting job.” Actually, she hopes to keep a hand in each side of the equation. “I’m looking to get a job on the consulting engineering side for civil and environmental engineering to get some good experience and learn how that goes but keep my involvement with Engineers Without Borders.”

This means her work in helping those less fortunate, both in developing countries and victims of disasters, will continue. “I have a passion for this kind of work, and I want to keep involved however I can. Transition time is coming.”

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