Using principles from a 4,000-year-old technique of filtering water through charcoal, a University of Colorado doctoral student is close to being able to provide safe drinking water free of pesticides to those living in developing countries.

The same pesticides and chemicals that are strictly banned in the United States are not well regulated in rural, developing areas, said engineering student Josh Kearns. The drinking water -- contaminated with fuel products, industrial chemicals and pesticides -- can cause a host of human health problems, including cancer, birth defects, reproductive complications and neurological problems.

Thai farmer and builder Jon Jandai of the Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance assists University of Colorado student Josh Kearns during shutdown of a
Thai farmer and builder Jon Jandai of the Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance assists University of Colorado student Josh Kearns during shutdown of a gasifier. Once all the material in the drum has turned to char, the reactor is sealed to prevent entry of oxygen and allowed to cool. (Photo courtesy of Lyse Kong)

In 2006, Kearns was working an internship in Thailand and began exploring the potential of "biochar." The idea is to use gasification methods to turn local, abundant products -- such as bamboo or corn cobs -- into biochar, which is then capable of purifying drinking water.

"What makes this project so fascinating is that we're not proposing anything new," Kearns said. "Filtering water through charcoal has been used as a treatment technique for 4,000 years at least. So this is not some newfangled technology or something expensive."

The question, he said, is whether the time-tested technology can be effective against modern water contaminants. If so, it could improve the health of millions in developing countries.

Stowed in a laboratory in CU's engineering building is a collection of Kearns' low-cost supplies that can easily be used to treat water. A paint bucket and tin cans plucked from a restaurant's trash bin replicate clean-burning, fuel-efficient cook stoves. The unit is capable of producing a char product better than the charcoal produced from traditional kilns.

His philosophy is to empower people so they can use their own resources and solve problems themselves.

Josh Kearns holds biochar made from a stove in the Engineering Center on the University of Colorado campus Tuesday. Kearns is pioneering the use of cheap
Josh Kearns holds biochar made from a stove in the Engineering Center on the University of Colorado campus Tuesday. Kearns is pioneering the use of cheap stoves to create charcoal for sustainable water filtration. ( PAUL AIKEN )

"We're very much focused on simple, sustainable technologies," he said.

During a tour Tuesday of his labs, Kearns said the campus has an informal consortium of biochar researchers.

His colleague Kyle Shimabuku explained his own domestic work converting pine beetle kill to biochar to treat contaminated groundwater or agricultural runoff -- a technique that is low-cost and can be applied in large quantities.

Kearns, who earned a master's degree in environmental chemistry, said he came to CU for his doctoral work largely because of its Engineering for Developing Communities program and the water quality work being done by professor R. Scott Summers in the civil, environmental and architectural engineering department.

Kearns is also working with professor Detlef Knappe at North Carolina State University as a co-adviser. Summers and Knappe are recognized as world leaders in the field of activated carbon research and its application in treating water.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or anasb@dailycamera.com.