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Evan Thomas
Evan Thomas

Elemental Needs

Engineering global public health solutions

Billions of people lack access to safe drinking water or heat sources. Engineering assistant professor Evan Thomas works with PSU students and researchers to design low-cost and lifesaving solutions like water filters and clean-burning stoves. To monitor the success of these tools, Thomas and his teams are also deploying revolutionary remote sensors, establishing greater accountability for international relief efforts.



NEARLY A BILLION PEOPLE lack access to clean drinking water. Two billion have inadequate sanitation facilities. Half the world’s population burns wood or biomass as a sole means of cooking. Consequently, two million people—mostly kids—die every year from contaminated water, and millions more from upper-respiratory disease caused by prolonged exposure to black soot. Evan Thomas, an engineering assistant professor and fellow of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, is working with a team of students and researchers to combat these life-threatening realities.

Thomas heads up Portland State’s SWEETLab (Sustainable Water, Energy, and Environmental Technologies Laboratory), where engineers design and implement household and community-scale solutions like gravity water filters and clean-burning stoves for places like Rwanda, Kenya, Indonesia, and Haiti. 

Because they engineer solutions that provide safe water and energy sources, Thomas’ team is also building in reliable streams of revenue with carbon financing. Through his social enterprise Manna Energy Limited, Thomas’ team has secured the first-ever United Nations carbon credit funding for water treatment, allowing these life-saving projects to continue reaching communities in nations like Rwanda. Partnering with the international disease-control company Vestergaard Frandsen, Thomas’ team is currently deploying the largest non-governmental water treatment program ever, already providing four million people with the tools to access safe drinking water in rural Kenya.

Most recently, the SWEETLab has been working to revolutionize the way we deploy and monitor this kind of assistance to the world’s poor. They have developed the first-of-its kind remote sensor, the SWEETSense, to monitor devices like water filters, cookstoves, and sanitation facilities from right here at Portland State. Using cell phone networks to transmit data, the sensors track how well these units are working, and also whether people are using them. From small-scale volunteer work to expansive large-scale projects, these sensors provide data that will better inform the technology used in the developing world—creating a whole new level of accountability for international relief efforts.

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