Water on the Brain


When they say everything depends upon water, they could easily be referring to jobs for mechanical engineers. George Gsell, president of MECO Engineering, Hannibal, MO, leads a company specializing in building machines for water purification in the developed world.

Focusing on the quality and quantity of water needed for a population, a major component is the makeup of the nearby water source. An engineer has to ask himself or herself what kind of contaminants might that river, ocean, or well contain, Gsell says.

Gsell, who received his mechanical engineering degree from Tulane University, says the study of membranes is key to what they do, already picking up the slack from where distillation was in the past. Four years ago, he says, fresh water was made through distillation only and now methods such as reverse-osmosis membranes and ultrafiltration have become popular. In the future, they may also find more selective membranes in which you choose the ions that you want to remove as opposed to the reverse-osmosis membrane, which is a complete removal. “Sometimes we just need to get rid of scale-forming ions,” he says.

Reverse osmosis desalination plant. Image: James Grellier

Many Areas of Need

The purification process has segmented off to multiple industries. Food, for example. “There’s a tremendous amount of water that’s used in the production of meat, of hamburgers and steaks,” he says. “It’s wash water, it’s package water, it’s other things. In many foods, hydration and water is a principle ingredient, a direct ingredient. If you’re going to send out Twinkies, you need everything put in there to be controlled. It has to be validated to some extent, so you’re not introducing impurities or contaminants or E. coli.”

The pharmaceutical industry is another vital area and one you might not expect. It’s heavily regulated by governmental authorities and in the U.S. companies are required to start with drinking water quality. “If we’re going to produce a water for the manufacture of drugs, maybe it’s IV fluids or the manufacture of cough syrup, usually the water quality is one of two grades, either water for injection or what’s called USP purified water. [It’s] not necessarily directly injecting into veins but might be used to wash off scalpels before they’re packaged or for cough syrups that you can swallow.” But executing the process for the pharmaceutical industry is difficult, and engineers with good organization and documentation skills can find opportunity since the paperwork through regulations can be “monumentally burdensome.”

Marine oil and gas is also a critical industry for water purification, providing the opportunity to put desalination plants on platforms for a crew that may have in excess of 100 people. But Gsell also says that even providing purified water for the drilling fluids and feeding production processes is a place where an engineer can come into play.


But there’s still a need to bring what the developed world would consider mature technology to the developing world. Gsell says he was once asked to go to a village in Ecuador during downtime from a job to help with their contaminated water. He asked if they had any chlorine to sterilize the well. Their supply?

Three teaspoons.

Water is no small problem in the U.S. and the developed world either. “You can’t live without water," he says. "And, even in [the U.S.], the infrastructure to carry water is just crumbling. It’s more than 200 years old.”

In other words, it sounds like there’s a lot of work for engineers to do.

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

It [water] has to be validated to some extent, so you’re not introducing impurities or contaminants or E. coli.

George Gsell, president, MECO Engineering


January 2013

by Eric Butterman, ASME.org