Illegal gold mining and its devastating effects on the environment have spread rapidly across Peru, fueled by a series of financial collapses that rocked the country in the 20th century and a 360% rise in the price 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 address the serious environmental crisis caused by illegal mining in Madre de Dios, a region in the southeast corner of the country bordering Brazil and Bolivia.
Illegal gold mining has devastated thousands of acres of the Amazon Basin and exposed surrounding populations to nearly 40 tons of mercury dumped from these mining sites each year, according to the Amazon Conservation Association. A study conducted by the Carnegie Institute for Science found that 78% of residents of Puerto Maldonao, the region’s capital, have dangerously high levels of mercury in their bodies.
In addition to 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, an immediate goal is to reduce 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 about the environmental crisis first-hand, visiting two farming communities — Cuzco and Puerto Maldonando. Working with farmers to understand their specific needs, the students were challenged to think of a bespoke solution for soil testing that would take into account the severe resource limitations of the region.
“We worked with these communities in the highlands [Cuzco] and in the jungle [Puerto Maldonando], both of which have different levels of understanding of the soil, but in general they have no means of analyzing it,” explained Guillermo Ghiglino Vásquez de 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 always have to send their samples back to Lima, which is time-consuming and also quite expensive.”
After gathering information and analyzing the most important aspects of their work with farmers in Peru, the students concluded the seven-week program in Cambridge 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 investigated 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 mechanical engineering concentrator at UTEC, was the first step in figuring out what they wanted the prototype to do and what they needed to do to get there.
“I think these two weeks have been very intense and long,” 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 imagining what we needed to do for the project. »
One of the main purposes of prototyping the device was waste, as various chemicals are used to test each soil sample for different compounds. Working on a small scale ensured minimal use of chemicals, making the amount of waste more manageable for farmers.
“The idea with these microfluidic devices is that we can make many more samples using the same amount of reagents, waste less of them, and be able to help more people at the same time,” explained Ghiglino Vásquez of Velazco.
Using methods such as laser cutting and 3D printing, students were able to create and test more than 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.