Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Treadle Pump Developed by Michigan Engineering Students

Last year a farmer in a mountain hamlet near Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, carried buckets of water two miles to irrigate his fields, which lay on a hilly landscape, high above the nearest water source. A diesel pump burned too much fuel -- the expense was too much for the farmer to handle -- and the noise was less than desirable. But a team of Michigan Engineering students made things right in his world – today he’s walking in place on a treadle pump, a contraption that resembles a StairMaster but pumps water into his field. It costs no more than his own time and energy.

Michigan Engineering students designed the first pump in 2008, built a prototype in their workshop, then wrote highly detailed, easy-to-read documentation. They traveled to Guatemala and built the first-generation machine. Now they’re at work on a redesign to improve flaws that came to light during the operation of the device in Guatemala.

When the team came back to Ann Arbor from Guatemala, they put their documentation online so that people could download it at no cost – within three days, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa had begun to download the materials; to date, there have been hundreds of downloads...

around the world. The team allows those who download the documentation to manufacture and sell the treadle pump to people who don’t have the facilities, skill or inclination to build their own devices. In Bangladesh, entrepreneurial types with manufacturing facilities have sold 1.4 million treadle pumps for $20 each.

The project started when Ann Arbor non-profit Appropriate Technology Collaborative (ATC) challenged Michigan Engineering BLUELab students to design a treadle pump using only materials that were native to Tanzania or another mostly rural African or Southeast Asian country. The students also had to document the design so that individuals and NGOs could easily read the drawings and build their own devices.

The BLUELab team chose to introduce its work in Guatemala, where farmers are poor, resources are limited and the water table makes irrigation difficult. When the team arrived, it found that wood was more expensive that steel, which required on-the-fly redesign. Realizing how wet the climate is, they came up with a unique twist, building pistons with leather exteriors so that, when soaked with water, they’d swell and create a tighter seal in the cylinders.

The treadle pump project shows the power of an idea in the hands of motivated engineers – they can improve the lives of people they’ll never meet or know about, in places they might never travel. How noble is that?

Learn about BLUELab at Find out more about the treadle-pump project at