• Creating a product everyone can use

  • Noemi Florea on museum rooftop
    Noemi Florea, BA Environmental Studies/BFA Integrated Design
  • Learn Something New

    Today’s complex problems will not be solved by yesterday’s answers. 

    Lack of access to clean, drinkable water is one such problem, both in the United States and around the world. Dealing with this issue involves environmental sustainability, social justice, governance, technology, and urban resilience. 

    Noemi Florea began to examine the issue of water insecurity in detail in 2020 as a student at The New School. Florea was studying design, economics, urban systems, and the environment, and as she investigated world conditions at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, she began to consider what could emerge when sustainability was built into the framework of a solution. 

    “The pandemic really magnified the amount of waste in our system,” Florea said. “Designers are being taught how to think differently, to imagine different scenarios and be creative about developing systems and thinking about the products and services within those systems.”

    She began sketching the blueprint for an ambitious design: to develop a system for recycling resources and water. Her solution was Cycleau, a compact device that sanitized PPE and washed household items without the use of electricity. Instead of using a pump, the prototype circulated water and sanitizing solution through its three compartments using the force of hydraulic motion. The device rendered water and cleaning solution reusable through its filtration system, which also removed them from the single-use waste stream. 

    Florea brought the idea to city partners in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Flint, Michigan, where residents lacked access to affordable clean drinking water. She connected with engineers and collaborated with New School faculty members including Gary Chwatuk, Raz Godelnik, and Leonardo Helland to develop a prototype of her idea.

    Today Cycleau has crossed over from an academic project to a start-up. Florea, who graduated in 2023, has developed her design so that rather than recycling PPE and household products, Cycleau now treats and recycles water itself.

    While Cycleau is designed to help underfunded communities such as those in Flint, where lack of investment in infrastructure has resulted in high rates of water contamination, Florea points out that aging infrastructure is threatening water access everywhere. In 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 7.2 million Americans fall ill from waterborne diseases annually.

    Graphic of Cycleau invention
    Renderings of Cycleau

    In its current iteration, Cycleau is a compact groundwater treatment system that can be fitted under a sink. The device, which measures two feet by three feet, is designed to provide point-of-use water treatment, protecting users against the contaminants found in public water supplies. Cycleau also captures greywater—water that has already been used in sinks, bathtubs, or washing machines—and recycles it by filtering it to drinking-water standards. 

    The prototype performs these functions through five stages of filtration. The water first passes through a coagulation chamber, where a coagulant such as aluminum sulfate  induces aggregation of suspended particles. The water is then filtered through a bed media chamber, where the particles are captured by activated carbon, fine sand, and drainage gravel. Next, the water undergoes three stages of membrane filtration: microfiltration, ultrafiltration, and nanofiltration. Finally, the water is disinfected through UV irradiation and purified through advanced oxidation, which eliminates any remaining bacteria and pathogens. 

    These stages of filtration mirror the processes used in wastewater treatment plants in a device built to household scale. 

    Cycleau is not just a product created to address a problem or fill a gap in the market. For Florea, it represents a coming together of the interests she pursued at The New School and the knowledge she acquired there. 

    Florea gained an in-depth understanding of environmental issues in the BA Environmental Studies program at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts along with a mastery of design practices in the BFA Integrated Design program at Parsons School of Design. She also cites Alan McGowan’s Renewable Energy Systems class, offered by the university’s Schools of Public Engagement, as invaluable for helping her develop her approach, which involves exploring the root causes of a problem and identifying and designing solutions in ways that both serve and bring together multiple stakeholders. 

    “Before really diving deep into this project, I don't think I ever thought I was capable of doing that type of technical research or development,” Florea said. “It opened up a whole new field of chemistry and scientific research. It also showed me how design thinking and the field of integrated design are not just about thinking about your user group or the aesthetics of your object or even the applications of your object. It also provides you with the capacity to incorporate science and technological development into your work in a way that I don't think other design disciplines necessarily allow for.”

    Since Florea graduated from The New School, Cycleau has attracted attention from several incubators and sustainability experts. In 2022, Florea was named one of six members of the Swarovski Foundation’s Creatives for Our Future—an honor that brought with it a grant and access to mentoring and guidance from business leaders. In addition, Florea was recently selected as a winner of the prestigious 2023 Solv[ED] Youth Innovation Challenge by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Although these grants have helped to take Cycleau forward, Florea also points out that awards she received as a New School student—the Student Research Award, a Civil Engagement and Social Justice Mini-grant, and the Eugene Lang Opportunity Award—were pivotal to the project’s launch.

    The next phase of development for Cycleau is already underway. Florea will be testing her prototype on cruise ships in hopes of demonstrating the effectiveness of her device in commercial and residential settings. But Florea is also looking at ways cleaning greywater can improve conditions around the world and even beyond homes. 

    “Greywater discharges from cruise ships today are among the leading sources of pollution across the oceans,” she said. “So by also targeting cruise ships, we can already have a very significant impact on the regeneration of ocean ecosystems.”

    As Cycleau progresses, Florea looks back on her days at The New School as a time of learning, exploration, and creative development that continue to shape her work.

    “The New School really champions radical innovation—innovation that isn't feasible or realistic even today, but something that could be transformational ten years from now,” Florea said. “The New School really fosters bold ideas. As a designer and as a student, I felt like I was guided and enabled to come up with these big ideas—to ask, ‘How are we going to recycle wastewater into drinking water?’”

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