n the third term of 2020, first year engineering student teams at UNSW had the opportunity to try and solve a particularly challenging water problem through the School of Chemical Engineering’s project offering for ENGG1000 Introduction to Engineering Design and Innovation, led by A/Prof Rita Henderson. The students addressed a challenge faced by Purple House, an Indigenous run and owned organisation that operates permanent dialysis clinics in 18 remote communities across NT/WA/SA from a base in Alice Springs, and a mobile dialysis service called the Purple Truck that support patients requiring treatment for end-stage renal failure.

Ultrapure pure water is generated to deliver dialysis using local groundwater run through the sensitive water treatment process. In some cases, Purple House has been directed by Northern Territory Water and Power to suspend services at the dialysis clinics because of poor groundwater quality. In other cases, Purple House has voluntarily suspended service because of high water temperature (greater than 45 degrees celsius) that occurs due to the harsh location, which can in turn disable equipment. The engineering student teams were tasked with designing a compact, energy efficient, water treatment system that could provide a safe and reliable supply of water for dialysis.

Purple House’s resident biomedical engineer, former UNSW graduate Dr Michael Smith, delivered a contextual lecture to the students explaining the key issues they were experiencing. Both Michael and Purple House CEO Sarah Brown attended the final design showcase where the students pitched their ideas, and provided a special prize that included Bush balm® products, produced by and for Indigenous dialysis patients and their families as a social enterprise.

Sarah said that she “particularly enjoyed the presentations where people had put some effort in to making it ‘real’ and had obviously spent some time thinking about us. Also the people who thought about environmental considerations, waste and making things easy to maintain.”

Rita was delighted to have the support of Purple House for the project-based learning experience for the students, saying, “I believe that working with organisations and industry who are employers of our students is critical in creating an authentic learning experience for our undergraduates. The students really engage as they can see the impact that solving the problem can have, they better understand how what they are learning is relevant beyond the degree program.”

Joanne Zreika and Matthew Bignall, both members of a team that won the ‘People’s Choice Award’ for their efforts at the overall ENGG1000 design showcase, shared their experiences:

“At times this project was definitely a challenge, however it was the amazing collaboration within our team that allowed us to design an incredible solution to our problem statement. I had a thoroughly enjoyable term working with my team, our mentor and the coordinators ” – Joanne Zrieka.

“Purple House faces a real problem with real implications and many factors and components to consider. It required research from many areas and we had to rely on each other to deliver the best design; if one of us had failed, our design would have failed. Having representatives from Purple House inspired us to deliver the optimal design that could solve the problem instead of one that could just theoretically do the job.” – Matthew Bignall.