Students have partnered with a pair of professors who recently launched a new project to confront the global water crisis, which has left nearly 800 million people without access to safe drinking water.Professor Massoud Pirbazari, a water purification expert, joined professor Thieo Hogen-Esch, as well as Hogen-Esch’s team at the USC Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute, to help improve the water supply for people around the world deprived of access to clean water. According to Water.org, more than 3 million people die each year of water-related diseases, with nearly all of these deaths occurring in the developing world.Viv Pitter, a senior majoring in environmental engineering who worked on this initiative, said impure water has the potential to affect entire communities.“Just because you contract one disease doesn’t mean you won’t contract another. And because they are in the water, diseases can affect entire communities,” Pitter said.The current method of water purification involves running water over a thin membrane that removes impurities in the water. However, these membranes can clog frequently, requiring high-energy input and are often rendered unusable.“In order to make [the membranes] cost-effective and usable, you have to somehow scientifically modify the membrane to make them less prone to clogging and fouling,” Pirbazari said. “Even just 20 percent less energy would be very attractive to the water industries.”Pirbazari also stressed the importance of water purification other than filtration. He particularly noted desalination, the process of removing salt from the water supply.“It doesn’t have to be seawater desalination, it could be desalination for water reuse to turn it into drinking water,” Pirbazari said. “It is also for agricultural purposes. It is useful for practically everything. You can take wastewater and further treat it for irrigation.”Kirsten Rice, a senior majoring in environmental and mechanical engineering, expressed optimism at increasing the availability of water filtering technology. While working with Pirbazari, Rice was able to design a water filter constructed out of sand and gravel. In tests, the filter was able to remove nearly all of a harmful bacteria and three-quarters of the element arsenic contained in the water.With the water crisis being most serious in developing countries, Rice described the importance of creating simple mechanisms, such as her sand and gravel filter, particularly as the global population grows and water resources are further strained.“Taking something as simple as sand and gravel [is important] because it can be applied all over the world without an economic cost,” Rice said.Yet Rice also noted that simply being able to purify water is not enough to confront the water crisis.“There’s still a limited amount of water — it has to be imported,” Rice said. “There’s greater demand. We need to work on conserving water.”Pirbazari has been heavily involved in engaging undergraduate students in research. Both Pitter and Rice described their work with him on water purification as very rewarding. Rice said that Pirbazari encouraged undergraduate students to take a leading role in carrying out research.“Dr. Pirbazari wanted his undergrads to become involved in their own research. We designed our own experiments, recorded our own data and analyzed our results,” Rice said. “We worked together as a team with Dr. Pirbazari.”According to Pirbazari, it is important for youth to recognize the significance of this water crisis.“Young people really have to know this and further their understanding of this very important issue,” Pirbazari said.