Illegal gold mining and its devastating environmental impacts spread rapidly across Peru, fueled by a series of financial collapses that rocked the country in the 20th century and a 360 percent increase in the price of gold.
Eight students from Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and Universidad Ingeniería y Technología (UTEC) in Peru worked together to tackle the severe environmental crisis caused by illegal mining in Madre de Dios, a region in the southeastern corner of the country bordering Brazil and Bolivia.
Illegal gold mining has devastated thousands of hectares of the Amazon Basin and exposed surrounding populations to nearly 40 tons of mercury dumped each year from these mining sites, according to the Amazon Conservation Association. A study by the Carnegie Institute for Science found that 78 percent of people in Puerto Maldonao, the region’s capital, have dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies.
Besides the consequences on public health, this environmental crisis directly affects agriculture, one of the most important contributors to the Peruvian economy. As the Peruvian government tries to stop illegal mining, the immediate focus is on reducing the toxicity of soils used for agriculture. Now in its fifth year, the Harvard-UTEC Collaborative Program seeks to tackle this problem.
The students traveled to Madre de Dios to learn directly about the environmental crisis, visiting two farming communities – Cuzco and Puerto Maldonando. Working with the farmers to understand their specific needs, the students were challenged to think of a tailor-made solution for soil analysis that would take into account the region’s severe resource limitations.
“We worked with these communities in the highlands [Cuzco] and in the jungle [Puerto Maldonando], both of which have different levels of understanding of soil, but in general they have no way of analyzing it, ”explained Guillermo Ghiglino Vásquez of Velazco, a chemical engineering concentrator at UTEC. “They have this kind of qualitative idea when the soil is good and when it’s bad, but they still have to send their samples back to Lima, which takes time and is also quite expensive.
After gathering information and analyzing the most important aspects of their work with farmers in Peru, the students completed the seven-week Cambridge program at Harvard Active Learning Labs, where they collaborated to produce a working prototype of a soil analysis device, while considering the various challenges of its implementation in the field. The students studied the use of microfluidics to improve the design of the prototype developed by the group last year.
One of the biggest challenges for Claudia Gutierrez Collave, a UTEC mechanical engineering hub, was the first step of figuring out what they wanted the prototype to do and what they needed to do to make it happen. produce.
“I think these two weeks have been very intense and extensive,” she said. “We had a week to learn all about microfluidics and the process of doing it in different ways. I think the hardest part was that first process of taking what we had learned and figuring out what we needed to do for the project.
The main focus of prototyping the device was waste, as various chemicals are used to test each soil sample for different compounds. Small-scale work ensured minimal use of chemicals, making the amount of waste more manageable for farmers.
“The idea with these microfluidic devices is that we can do a lot more samples using the same amount of reagents, waste less and be able to help more people at the same time,” explained Velazco’s Ghiglino Vásquez.
Using methods such as laser cutting and 3D printing, students were able to create and test over 20 prototypes, presenting their most successful version to SEAS faculty members upon completion of the program. In addition to designing a working prototype, the students also developed educational workshops to give farmers a better understanding of the soil they use.