Dean Kamen on Clean Energy, Clean Water, and Commuting in the Mega City (Part One)

TreeHugger: You've done some remarkable work with water purification. What's the latest with that?

Kamen: We believe that technology really does have a huge opportunity to affect the way people live and work, like the Segway. But, there are some really, really critical issues that most people, particularly in the United States, are lucky enough to never have to deal with. About a quarter of the people alive today do not have access to safe drinking water. The number one cause of death in many country is water-borne pathogens. Two million people, mostly kids under five years old, die every year because of lack of water.

And most credible global health organizations will tell you that virtually 50% of all the hospital beds that have people in them right now are filled simply because of the lack of clean water. That’s falf of all human disease.

We decided that there ought to be a technology to solve that problem. Knowing that most of those people don't live in a world where there's a lot of infrastructure, we figured it can't be the typical 19th or 20th century industrial world model of mega-systems run by big municipal organizations.

We decided that we ought to be able to build a small machine that could be carried by a couple of people into any environment, such as a small village (of which there are 900,000 in places like India, Bangladesh, Central America, and Africa).

We ought to be able to move a machine into place, plop it down and have it draw from any source of local water, whether it's full of bioburden, Criptospiridium, Giraudia, or whether it is full of inorganics like arsenic and heavy metals, as are a million-and-a-half wells in India and Bangladesh.

It ought to be a box that is agnostic about what is wrong with the input water, and can even take saltwater from the ocean. It ought to be able to just have two hoses on it, one that you put into a source—anything that looks wet—and another hose out of which comes pure water that is safe and attractive.

Not only would it be safe, but it wouldn't smell from chlorine. It wouldn't have other problems that you and I wouldn't tolerate in our water.

And we said if we could make a box like that and make it operate efficiently enough that it could make water at a reasonable cost, and it could operate for reasonable periods of time without a lot of maintenance, and we could build them in quantities where one machine could serve 100 people, you could go build a few million machines and you could serve a pretty good proportion of the people who don't have drinkable water now.

And so we have spent about 10 years developing the core technology to make that machine possible. The goal was no membrane, even if there is salt water. No chemicals, like chlorine, even if there's bioburden in the water. No activated charcoal or other kinds of consumables even if there are heavy metals and inorganics.

The machine has to operate cost effectively, reliably, without maintenance and disposables, making at least 1,000 liters of water a day for a number of years. And we think we have gotten to where it's time to start testing these systems in reasonable quantities in different locations around the planet.

TreeHugger: You know you've made it when you're invited to be a guest on the Colbert Report. You brought this device on there and Steven threw what I think were chilly lime tortilla chips into the contaminated water. How did that work out?

Kamen: Our machine is good, as I said. It not only could take care of stuff that could kill you, like inorganics and heavy metals and spores from viruses and bacteria, it could even handle everything that Steven Colbert threw at it. We both drank the water and I don't recall either of us having any ill effects.

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