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Aqueous Solutions Develops Biochar Water Treatment!

Josh Kearns and coworkers at Aqueous Solutions kicked off 2016 with the first ever biochar water treatment workshop for water-sanitation-hygiene (WASH) practitioners. Over the past several years Aqueous has conducted many workshops setting up water treatment systems with villagers throughout SE Asia. These are primarily practical affairs, involving mostly hands-on training with minimal conceptual explanation. With this workshop, however, we tried something completely new -- we targeted a more technical group of professional WASH development practitioners, and provided in-depth coverage of underlying adsorption science and relevant water treatment engineering principles, along with hands-on activities. In addition to thorough coverage of biochar adsorption and the design and operation of roughing, slow sand biofiltration, and post-filter adsorber unit processes. The workshop hands-on activities accomplished:

  • constructed of three drum-oven pyrolyzers
  • prepared feedstock, generated and processed char to desired granular size fractions for replacement in the Pun Pun system (~ 1 m3 of char), plus three blue barrel systems (~100 L of char, each)
  • installed an additional (parallel) slow sand biofilter to increase throughput capacity of Pun Pun system
  • constructed and installed start-to-finish one blue barrel system at a farm cooperative community (Thai) in another part of Chiang Mai Province.
  • constructed tanks and prepared media for installation of two additional blue barrel systems that will be provided, along with training, to Lahu and Chinese hill tribe villages in far northern Thailand
  • ... and we made some great new friends and sustainable development professional contacts!!!

Video artist Darcy Muenchrath made a short documentary about this workshop that can be viewed here:

The first half of 2016 was our most ambitious field season to-date. We produced around 100 drum oven batches of water filter char, installed a dozen 300 L/d “blue barrel” treatment systems serving communities across Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, and Sri Lanka, and trained around 200 locals in construction and maintenance of these systems. The populations served ranged from remote hill tribes in the far north of Thailand, to refugees and IDPs (internally displaced persons) in eastern and central Myanmar/Burma, to agricultural communities afflicted by chronic kidney disease of unknown cause(s) in Sri Lanka (water contamination is a suspected cause or contributor). (See photo sets, and key below).

All this experience with biochar water treatment trainings in the field has produced two new how-to manuals illustrating the construction of 300 L/d “blue barrel” ( and 2000 L/d concrete tank systems ( Manuals in other languages available from our website ( And thanks to our Myanmar Program Coordinator Myat Thandar Aung, Aqueous has a Burmese language website (!

Summer 2016 highlights included a visit to the North American Biochar Symposium at Oregon State University. Josh gave a talk entitled, “Biochar water treatment for controlling trace organic contaminants: perspectives on the state of the science” (

 In October 2016, Aqueous Solutions hosted a symposium on “Controlling toxic chemicals in drinking water in developing communities” at the University of North Carolina Water & Health Conference. This seminal event launched the WASH-Toxics Working Group (, a consortium of environmental toxicology and health experts, environmental engineers and scientists, water treatment specialists, researchers, development agency program officers, and WASH practitioners working in the academic, government, non-profit, I/NGO, and private sectors to advance innovative, affordable, and sustainable technologies to control toxic chemicals and supply safe water to resource constrained and developing communities. Adsorption with biochar is one powerful tool in the kit for addressing chemical water contaminants!

By December 2016, Josh finally managed to submit his doctoral thesis and graduate! He received a PhD in Environmental Engineering with a specialty in Engineering for Developing Communities from the University of Colorado-Boulder. His thesis is aptly titled, “Biochar adsorbent for control of synthetic organic contaminants in affordable decentralized water treatment.”

In 2017 Aqueous is tackling a wider variety of water quality challenges using biochar. For example, in partnership with Mexican WASH NGO Caminos de Agua (, we’re conducting laboratory and field research in the use of bone char and functionalized wood char for control of fluoride and arsenic in groundwater. This research is headed up by Maia Fitzstevens, studying at NC State University on a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. (Maia is also our Sri Lanka Program Coordinator.)

Caminos will host our next biochar water treatment training for WASH practitioners this August in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (

In January 2018, Josh will join the Global WASH faculty cluster at NC State University ( as an Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering. At NCSU he will continue to pursue applied research projects intersecting the fields of appropriate technologies in water and sanitation, valorization and creative application of “waste” biomaterials, and adsorption processes for control of hazardous substances in air, water, and soil.


January 2016. Gkae Noi hill tribe village, far northern Thailand

In this village and surrounding area, a few people who can afford it drink bottled water, but it is costly. Our pilot installation at the church/school, where on the weekends ~ 300 children come from the region for church classes and activities. During the week, language classes (Thai, Chinese) are offered in the evenings to ~ 50 people. The church offers bottled water to the children. However, children from the poorest villages/families refuse to drink it, because "they don't want to get used to the good taste of the clean water," since they know their families cannot afford to buy it for them. So they insist on drinking untreated water from the storage tanks. Now they can drink treated water, and learn from local staff how to build these systems in their villages!


February 2016. Doi Pumuen village, Lahu hill tribe, far northern Thailand

Biochar water treatment workshop with Lahu hill tribe community self-reliance organizations.


February 2016. Ee Tu Hta IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camp, Karen State, eastern Myanmar/Burma

Biochar water treatment workshop with 30 representatives from several community health and development organizations from Karen State, Karenni (Kayah) State, Shan State, Mon State, and Tanintharyi region. Participating organizations included: Karen Environmental and Social Action Network Backpack Health Worker Team Karen Office of Relief and Development Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People Karen Department of Health and Welfare Mon State Development Association Keinndayar Rural Social Development Organization Karenni Social Welfare and Development Center Mon Relief and Development Committee Shan State Development Foundation The Border Consortium Ee Tu Hta Camp Water Management Committee We built two biochar ovens, made and processed several batches of biochar adsorbent, and installed start-to-finish four blue barrel systems at the clinic and three schools in the camp.


March/April 2016. Weligepola Women's Federation, Sri Lanka

Aqueous Soluitons’ first installation in Sri Lanka, working with an amazing group advancing village self-reliant development and women's empowerment.


April 2016. Rajanganaya, Sri Lanka

Biochar water treatment workshop in north-central province of Sri Lanka where kidney disease is epidemic.


May 2016. Kyaunt Ywae village, central Myanmar/Burma

Installation of a treatment system and bamboo-concrete rainwater tank in a village in central Myanmar. The village is located on a hill above a large reservoir near Paukkhaung township. The reservoir was created about 20 years ago, which flooded a huge area including several villages and the surrounding farmland. The villagers were relatively well off before, but since have moved up into the surrounding hills to make a hadscrabble life. Aq team members traveled to Kyaunt Ywae village with several members of Green Future, a Paukkhaung based environmental group affiliated with the local chapter of the National League for Democracy (Aung San Suu Kyii's party). We (and all our gear and materials) traveled by boat and oxcart to reach the workshop site.


May 2016. Kyae Kadaut Ywar village, Karen State, eastern Myanmar/Burma

Workshop and installation in collaboration with the Kayan New Land Party.


June, 2016. Workshop installation in Embilipitya, Sri Lanka

Five day workshop on water treatment comprised students' (aged 11-16) science lessons. Project support from Sri Bodhiraja Foundation.