I am a sucker for filter technology, so although Naked Filter's slick marketing machine was a bit of a turn off to me, it is interesting enough to make me bite. Can it really deliver on its promise?
I decided to find out as much as I can -- because clean water can be the difference between life and death for millions in developing countries, and is becoming an issue in developed countries as aging infrastructure fails. Even where tap water exceeds all health and quality standards, lack of trust or taste drive millions more to bottled water, adding to waste and pollution plaguing the planet.
What caught my eye? The holy grail of filter technology -- high volume at low pressure with 99.9999% removal rates for little, itty-bitties like germs and bacteria. Fail safe. No other filter can promise all that. Can Naked Filter do it?
I asked for technical reports. I talked to CEO Victor Hwang himself, to get a feel for how real this is. And here, unfiltered, is my take on it. Imagine you are a silicon valley entrepreneur. You meet some scientists with a better filter and stars in their eyes as they imagine all the good it could do in the world. Then reality bites. The people who need these filters cannot be the bedrock on which to build a company. You need to sell your product, get people talking about it, get the production facilities built and churning out large volumes to get costs down to where the more charitable applications become feasible.
I asked why a company that clearly has years of research and testing into development of the filter -- not an inexpensive undertaking -- needs a kickstarter campaign to finance their consumer product? The marketing beast raises its head. Kickstarter offers an opportunity to test consumer interest and promote word of mouth.
So how does Naked filter work? Traditionally, small-pore filters have been made out of porous solid materials or films. The smaller the pores, the harder you have to suck or push to get water out the other side. Filtering out germs and bacteria requires pore sizes in the 0.2 micron range, a level known as ultrafiltration, which can really require pressure to force water through. More surface area can help, by increasing the places where water can flow, but the rock star of surface area -- the capillary filter in devices like lifestraw -- still leave users struggling to get water, leading to low adoption rates.
Naked filter is more like a hairball clogging your drain. At first, the water flows just fine. Then, as the hairball traps stuff going down the drain, it plugs up. The water drains more slowly. Eventually, it stops, or seeps so slowly you have to take action. The nanofiber hairball (ahem, I mean the electrospin-printed nanomembrane) in Naked Filter offers a large amount of surface area in a smaller filter. The fact that it eventually clogs makes it fail-safe. The germs will never get through; when the water is not getting through either, you know it is time to replace the filter unit.
Hwang sums up the user experience that differentiates Naked Filter: "You get 50-70 mL in a 2 second squeeze. My 5-year-old uses this bottle, it’s that easy. You don’t have to squeeze or pump or suck really hard."
Other technology, like electroadsorption or silver nanotechnology, may produce unsafe water if the unit is exhausted or flow rates are too fast. Dropping iodine into drinking water may solve the flow issue, but leaves an unappetizing taste.
Removal of viruses requires a 0.02 micron pore, which Naked Filter's parent company Liquidity has developed as well. But since lakes and streams in North America don't host pathological viruses, that would be overkill for this first product. Liquidity Corporation also has visions for countertop units capable of serving families in places from Detroit to New Delhi.While some large metal complexes can be filtered out, in general ultrafiltration cannot remove dissolved metals or organics (such as herbicides or pesticides).
For now, the Naked Filter units must be disposed. Although the nanofiber filter is theoretically recyclable plastic, the filter unit consists of multiple materials, including a carbon filter at its core, to improve taste. In testing with moderate turbidity water, the individual cartridge processed over 50 liters.
The Naked Filter water bottle currently targets (wealthy) consumers in places where the tap water probably won't harm a flea. It certainly has a place in wild trekking or post-disaster response, and perhaps can justify its own material costs in saved water bottle plastic. But the fait will be accompli only when a filter is available that can do for water what cell phones have done for communications: leap-frog the old methods to bring a better life to millions in need.
Victor Hwang's enthusiasm for the cause seems authentic. Tune in to Kickstarter for the next episode.