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Students win $100K for 3-D printer to turn waste plastic into composting toilets, rainwater systems

A University of Washington team this week claimed top prize in the first 3D4D Challenge, an international contest to use 3-D printing for social benefit in the developing world. The three undergraduates won $100,000 to form a company that will work with partners in Oaxaca, Mexico, to build machines that can transform waste plastic into composting toilets and pieces for rainwater harvesting systems.

Matthew Rogge, a post-baccalaureate mechanical engineering student who presented the project in London, was inspired by years spent working in the Peace Corps. He began teaching chemistry and physics in Ghana, but ended up spending more than six years building water and irrigation systems in Ghana, Panama and Bolivia. "We built drilling equipment for our own well, and then built our own pump out of plastic," Rogge said. "There were a lot of parts that took a fair amount of skill to make."

He was frustrated by the challenge of making custom parts in low-resource settings. "I was looking into engineering and I'd read about 3-D printing, and that's when I decided to go back to graduate school," Rogge said.

The winning proposal that he presented is to use giant 3-D printers to create composting latrines that are lightweight and use less energy to manufacture than concrete toilets. The machine would also make rainwater catchment components that are specifically designed to fit to rain barrels, unlike current systems where joining available plumbing parts cause leaks and frequent failures. "I'm super excited," Rogge said. "This is why I came back to school."

The contest flew six other teams to London for the finals. Entrants included students, small companies and individuals from around the world. The competition was sponsored by a U.K.-based charity,

The UW students are all members of the Washington Open Object Fabricators, or WOOF, a 3-D printing student club formed in the last year that has already grown to about 50 members.

"It's accelerating every day," said operations director Bethany Weeks, an undergraduate student in mechanical engineering who traveled to London for the competition. Club members will be invited to help test concepts for the new nonprofit, she said, while continuing to learn and experiment with 3-D printing.

The group's faculty advisers are mechanical engineering professor Mark Ganter and associate professor Duane Storti.

"They're amazing students," said Ganter, who watched the winning pitch live with his UW class. "They have a passion, and the judges saw their passion."

Judges also were impressed by research the students conducted to prove their concept. In July the students printed a boat from more than 250 milk jugs and then entered it in a Seattle race. That proved they could create objects from recycled plastic and was a test run for their custom-built giant printer, also built from salvaged parts.

"With small-scale printers, the extruders can clog easily," said Brandon Bowman, who also attended the competition. The huge printer that the students built, named "Big Red," can not only create larger objects, but it also allows them to print with materials that are not perfectly clean.

The team members will use the prize money to form a nonprofit that will work with Water for Humans in Oaxaca to test their idea. They are looking for more collaborators in the U.S. and overseas.

"I feel lucky to have the chance to start making our ideas into reality," Rogge said. "There is great potential here to improve people's quality of life while taking plastic out of the waste stream."

Contact: Hannah Hickey
University of Washington

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