SlingShot: Inventor Dean Kamen's 15-Year Quest to Solve the World’s Safe Water Crisis

Two excited boys getting water from a fresh water tap

SlingShot / Screen Capture

The inventor of the Segway, who is described as our era’s Thomas Edison, has been working for years on one of our biggest global challenges. The documentary SlingShot shines a light on Kamen and his work.

As long as I've been reading and writing about water issues, it has never ceased to amaze me that there are still large numbers of people who don't have regular access to clean water to drink (or cook, or bathe, or do anything else with). But the sad fact of the matter is that contaminated drinking water and lack of sanitation and good hygiene are implicated in causing diarrhea, which is still a huge killer even in 2015 and accounts for the deaths of some 842,000 people each year - about 2,300 deaths per day.

To put it into perspective, the average person in the developed world can carry around a high-tech miniature computer in their pocket in the form of a phone, which is capable of streaming video live from around the world, as well as a hundred other marvelous feats of mobile technology. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, people regularly die from the lack of safe water and sanitation. While we're all busy scrolling through our friends' posts about their first world problems on Facebook, there are mothers and fathers who are burying their children due to lack of something as basic as a sanitary toilet or handwashing station—rare things in some parts of the world.

It's easy to be a backseat driver on water issues because unless we're involved in the actual logistics and financing of getting clean water to the people who need it most, or the economics of building sanitary toilets that will be used and maintained, we might think all we need to do is drill more wells, or dig more latrines, or donate water purifiers. But the reality of the safe water crisis is much more complex than that, and the sheer scope of the issue can be rather intimidating, because there is no single one-size-fits-all solution, and even if there was, there is no magic money tree to pay for it.

Thank goodness that hasn't stopped inventors like Dean Kamen from pursuing a viable solution for clean water. Without pushing the boundaries of what's possible, and combining it with the limits of our technological prowess, we aren't going to get very far in solving the water crisis.

Kamen, whose Segway was one of the early commercial examples of a feasible personal electric transport device, is a prolific inventor with patents on hundreds of diverse inventions, ranging from insulin pumps to electric wheelchairs to heart stents, and for the last fifteen years has been working on clean water issues.

Kamen's SlingShot (so-named after the Biblical David & Goliath story) device is an energy-efficient "vapor compression distiller." It is one possible answer to the safe water crisis.

The SlingShot is designed to take virtually any unfit source of water (such as contaminated well water or seawater) and turn it into clean water, without requiring a filter—which regularly needs to be replaced—or using chemical additives—which have to be purchased.

The device uses combustible fuel to power the Stirling engine inside, but the fuel source can be as diverse as cow dung, so it doesn't require high-cost fuels to operate.

"The SlingShot machine is capable of producing roughly 1000 liters (250 gallons) of pure, distilled water every day, using only the power of a hairdryer. It is the size of a small college dorm refrigerator. Once installed in a remote village, it can supply the daily water needs for up to 100 people, providing drinking, washing and cooking water. With this clean water supply, general health conditions will improve instantaneously." - SlingShot

A new documentary explores Kamen and his work toward solving one of our huge global challenges. The film is described as "an inspiring portrait" of this modern-day Thomas Edison. Here's the trailer:

The award-winning documentary SlingShot screened in New York City, L.A., and other cities worldwide. The documentary is available as a DVD for home viewings and in an educational version with a companion discussion guide for classrooms.

The issues for this potentially game-changing technology that addresses a very serious global problem remain ones of financing, mass production, and distribution, similar to what many other water solutions are facing, but a recent partnership between Kamen and his company (DEKA Research) and The Coca-Cola Company could help, as it will be bringing field trials of the device to areas of Paraguay and Ghana.