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Associate Professor Rhett Butler AM

Alumni Award for Service to Humanity
Mechanical engineer Rhett Butler uses his technical expertise to manufacture a solution to one of the world's most pressing issues - access to clean water.

At least 2 billion people worldwide drink water from a contaminated source, according to the World Health Organisation. Mechanical engineer Rhett Butler (BE(Mech) '79 ME '83) witnessed this firsthand, as he travelled the world for Australian startup enterprise MEMCOR. The company had developed an automated membrane water filtration system, and it was his job to liaise with its clients. But over time, he became troubled that the price of these systems was expensive and out of reach for people who most needed it.

“I used to spend time in Asia and Africa and I’d go for a walk at night and see all the kids swimming in polluted waterways, and drinking polluted water, and I thought, ‘I should be able to get this technology to work in a very low cost-effective way’. And that's what I set out to do.”

Using the experience he gained from his time with MEMCOR, and the skills he developed during a Master of Industrial Engineering at the University of Sydney, Rhett developed a hand-held gravity membrane filter, which he now calls the “Sky Hydrant”. The simple design has no pump, consumes no energy or chemicals, and can treat water anywhere to make it safe and potable. The chemical-free filtration system produces up to 10,000 litres a day. His organization, the SkyJuice Foundation Inc., is a not-for-profit that works with many NGO’s and global charities, such as Rotary and Oxfam. To date they have supplied over 6500 units in 74 countries, providing for safe water in communities that previously had no access to clean water.

SkyJuice’s first major project was undertaken after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami devastated Southeast Asia. Rhett’s old friend, Clean Up Australia’s Ian Kiernan, helped raise $300,000 in funds so that Rhett and a team of volunteers, including engineers and nurses, could immediately travel to install over 250 SkyHydrants into affected villages throughout Sri Lanka.

“Everywhere I go a lot of traditional indigenous people tell me that some of their lakes and rivers have never been dry in their living memory and they have to walk for many kilometres to access water every day. So, it is vital that we develop new ways to deliver functional and practical outcomes to get safe water to those who need it most.”

Rhett believes real and practical empowerment is crucial to the sustainability of these communities, and part of the SkyJuice charter means looking beyond the immediate technology solution by involving and helping locals to become financially independent.

“We have pioneered autonomous safe water kiosks  to encourage women, in particular, in developing countries to start their own businesses and sell water as a means of income.

“There’s always a social component to all water projects that is critical to success. The solution is not just about technology. It also includes a pre-installation meeting and importantly talking to community elders.

“Sometimes when you work in very complex engineering projects, you’re just a little cog in a massive wheel and you never own the outcome. With stuff like this, our volunteers and partners can deliver and install valuable working assets in schools,  villages and  hospitals. You see kids smiling, jumping around and having a great time. It's amazing how they get so excited when they’re just getting water.”