Environmental Engineering

Paving the Way for a more Sustainable Future: How Tatiana Estévez Carlucci is developing technology to harvest water from fog

Tatiana Estévez Carlucci ● Founder and CEO ● Permalution

Tatiana Estévez Carlucci ● Founder and CEO ● Permalution

“I have always wanted to make a difference by improving the world as much as I can.”

Even at a young age, Tatiana had a knack for improving the way machines worked. She often disarmed things that didn’t work in her childhood house, such as the washing machine. Her love for  improving processes developed into a passion to make the world a more sustainable place to live. Originally entering college as a business student, Tatiana opted to take several engineering classes and formed a deep connection with environmental engineering and water-related technologies. This connection led her to found, Permalution, a company that focuses on fog water harvesting and holistic project development.

“I believe that some of the big issues that we face worldwide are companies that are not sustainable. If we put our money into businesses that are environmentally cultured, I think we can have a cleaner long-lasting environment,” Tatiana says.

With this vision for the future, in 2015, Tatiana founded her startup while she was living in San Francisco. However, it was only after she moved to Mexico that the company really started to grow. She wanted to focus on harvesting water from fog using similar methods to traditional rainwater harvesting. Utilizing fog as a source for water could have several applications including, harvesting steam to recycle water in the textile industry, developing self-producing energy systems, and helping improve farming and agriculture.

There are five main types of fog, and although Tatiana wants to eventually harvest them all, she and her team are currently focused on harvesting coastal fog which mostly is formed close to water. Tatiana’s first task was to start looking for different designs and materials that would improve upon older methods. Although she had background knowledge from taking mechanical, electrical, and environmental engineering classes in college, it still took an extensive amount of research to ultimately design her first project.

“I built the first functional prototype to show my roommate we could harvest the fog that passed through our window, and in the morning, the whole floor was wet and damp, “ Tatiana proudly shares.

After improving the design, it was featured as a finalist in Singularity University’s Global Impact Challenge. It was also featured in Fast Company as one of the 3 new devices that could “suck water from thin air.”  With that recognition, Tatiana realized that Permalution had the potential to be implemented globally. She began building a team that included two thermal engineers to help further develop her prototype.

They continued to develop their design through a partnership with a research center at a university in China that was developing a synthetic silk from a spider that had the properties of water capture. Tatiana and her team built upon that experience to design more scalable, yield-improving materials.

Permalution first identifies a place that seems optimal to harvest fog. Secondly, the team sets a sensor module that runs for 4 to 8 weeks that allows them to determine where to place the fog catcher. The fog can then make contact with the membrane and start draining the water that usually falls in the gutter.

“We can harvest up to 3 times more water with fog than rain in areas where fog conditions are optimal. We are now exploring [how] to add solar energy and rain harvesting to the modules. We can use the membrane we created to use cloud seeding technologies to create fog anywhere in the world.”

Tatiana and her team are in the process of building a 20 meter replica of the prototype in Mexico for a massive reforestation project in Tepic, Nayarit. She explains that the water industry is highly regulated, so in the process of creating a new product, she must also navigate governmental laws and public policy related to water which can sometimes be a hindrance.

“I try to focus on the opportunities of the future instead of the current limitations. The encouragement I received from other fellow women at the CleanTech accelerator program and through competitions was gold to me. I learned a lot from women who became my role models, so I try as much as I can to assist, motivate, and encourage women who have their own initiatives.”

For this reason, in addition to the work Tatiana is doing with Permalution, she also founded Tech Quiero, an organization that supports women and girls with learning how to code.

“A misconception I often have to dispel, mainly for women who have the spark to be engineers, is that it is not about working with engines, as many believe. The word engineer comes from ingeniare which means to use your genius to put things together and make something new, useful, innovative. This is the basis for creating a new world.”

Tatiana hopes that other women can find their calling in life and believe in themselves enough to help further the creation of this constantly changing, new world we live in.

Merging Women’s Studies and Engineering: How Mona Mohammed applies her unique experiences to transform wastewater treatment

Mona Mohammed ● Graduate Student in Environmental Engineering ● Bucknell University

Mona Mohammed ● Graduate Student in Environmental Engineering ● Bucknell University

(Photo credit: Salma Mohammed)

For a young Mona Mohammed, watching her father work on water projects in Yemen as a civil engineer inspired a desire to pursue a similar career. Despite discovering her interest in engineering early, Mona questioned that interest at multiple points along her journey. She first left Yemen in 2008 to attend Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong (UWC) for an International Baccalaureate Program. It was there that the intensity of a physics class first caused her to question her decision to study engineering. After her time at UWC, Mona decided to take a gap year and return to Yemen.

During that time Mona had a year long internship with the GIZ Yemen German Reproductive Health Program. In that role she helped coordinate the efforts of field staff in raising awareness around issues of reproductive health, including child marriage and its impacts on the wellbeing and education of girls in Yemen. Mona says, it was during her experience that year, that she understood the lack of access to water and sanitation to be the most pressing issue facing Yemen. Her experience also helped her recognize the gendered nature of this challenge.

“It is usually poor young girls who are tasked with securing water for their families. This is usually means spending time out of school, taking long walks in dangerous conditions and carrying heavy water every day.”  

As she was applying for universities, “my friend came over and spoke about her experience studying civil engineering and encouraged me to apply, as she thought I would really enjoy it.” Mona credits this encouragement, along with support from family and friends, as a key part in her decision to become an engineer. She acknowledges how that guidance is especially important for women to push past some of the barriers they face in pursuing STEM fields.

“Even though people suffer to different extents from the lack of access to water based on their socio-economic class, water scarcity is a national problem as different parts of the country are expected to run out of water by 2020,”  says Mona. “To me, becoming an engineer meant finding ways in which my family and I could continue living at home.”

To that end, Mona moved to America in 2011 after being awarded a full scholarship to study at Bucknell University. There, she received a dual undergraduate degree in women’s and gender studies and civil and environmental engineering.  When asked how women and gender studies tied into her career path, Mona says she views her women’s and gender studies major as another tool in her engineering toolbox.

“[The major] is a lens that helped me analyze engineering problems from a gendered perspective and ask questions such as, what are the differences in the impacts of water scarcity on each gender.” She continues “using this lens, has the implication of changing the power dynamic for women and giving them more time to join schools and learn different skills.”

Mona is convinced that a sustainable solution to the problem of water scarcity has to be one with women at the center of it. She also jokes that gender studies is what “kept [her] sane”, as she navigated different cultures, and faced different forms of sexism, in her home country and in the USA.

Mona is continuing her education at Bucknell University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Her research focuses on improving wastewater treatment and evaluating its social, environmental and economic impacts. Mona looked at improving anaerobic (without oxygen) wastewater treatment, which produces methane. In its gas form, methane can be used for energy production and heating. However, not all the produced methane is in gas form, some of it is dissolved in the water leaving the treatment plant. That dissolved methane contributes to a great extent to global warming. As such, Mona designed and operated a biological reactor that oxidizes dissolved methane into carbon dioxide, potentially reducing the carbon footprint of wastewater treatment plants.

Despite her determination to further her studies and accomplish more, she encountered common challenges many women in this field face. To overcome those challenges, Mona encourages others to persevere and develop a support system (in her case it was family and friends) who you are comfortable going to in times of need. An important person in Mona’s support system was her graduate studies advisor, Professor Deborah Sills.

“Women have to go through a lot more to get into and remain in [STEM] programs,” Mona says. “When I was applying to grad school, Professor Sills took me in as her master’s student. She has both supported and challenged me throughout my masters. Having a professor here who would always advocate for me and at the same time expect the best of me definitely pushed me to meet these expectations, so I’m forever indebted to her.”

Furthermore, sexism in STEM remains a big inhibitor for women to continue in fields such as engineering. Having a female mentor and a role model in her advisor, Mona was able to see first hand the intersection of social awareness and justice with engineering research and practice.

After graduating, Mona plans on returning home to Yemen to “help with the relief efforts of the humanitarian crisis.” As the peace talks continue, she hopes for an end to the war and an avoidance of a man-made famine in Yemen. She intends to contribute as a water and sanitation engineer in what she hopes will be “a dawn of a reconstruction era”.   

Mona emphasizes how impactful combating the water crisis would be for women in Yemen. A resolution would mean a drastic change in their societal roles and open up innumerable opportunities.