I recently started working with a social enterprise in India; it’s mission is to improve the lives of the urban poor. They sell items like solar lights on an affordable payment plan to people living in slum communities to both meet basic needs and to improve quality of life. The company is pretty great; they employ local salespeople and empower the impoverished to — if they want it — make small improvements in their daily lives.
One of my projects is researching and testing different products to offer in addition to solar lights, things like: solar fans, solar mosquito zappers, tablets, water filters, cooking stoves, etc. I’m not sure if there are just more inventions coming out, or if I am simply digging deeper, but the volume and variety of gadgets impressed me. Many new gadgets aren’t applicable to my work in slums, but they’re still amazing. Some of you might be just as intrigued as I was to learn about a few of these. My four-part series over the next few weeks will share some of the truly amazing inventions I’ve found — this week’s focus is on water filters.
According to the UN, “85% of the world lives on the driest half of the planet, and over 780 million people don’t have access to clean water.” Many take access to clean water for granted, myself included. I’m from the U.S.A., a country that built some of its largest and richest cities (Los Angeles, Las Vegas) in the desert. Despite the fact that no life should exist there, the government spent billions of dollars on infrastructure that allows water to flow freely into every tap, swimming pool, and sprinkler.
Technology allows U.S. residents to live blissfully unaware of the sheer luxury they’re enjoying. To me, this access to water is a basic necessity — it’s an expected amenity in the U.S. Imagine renting an apartment in LA and while signing the papers the landlord mentions, “Oh, by the way, the well is just out back — you’ll need to get our own bucket, though. Also, you’ll probably want to boil that water before drinking it.” Would you still live there? Probably not. In my work, engineers design new technologies and products with a goal to bring places like Sub-Saharan Africa one step closer our definition of what constitutes a “basic necessity.”
Travelers to the developing world know the danger of drinking out of the tap — one wrong sip and suddenly you’re relegated to the bathroom floor for the rest of your trip. Even if the tap water is “safe,” there are generally fewer regulations on water quality. This can quickly cause issues like kidney stones from the additives used to purify the water. With that in mind, the insecurity of water resources around the world, these innovations could potentially improve the quality of life for people without regular access to clean water in their daily lives. Or, if you’re traveling, living abroad, or even camping, the devices below and they may revolutionize the way you quench your thirst.
This innovation completely blew me away. It’s a small, silicon strip about the size of a thumb, dubbed the “Artificial Leaf.” It doesn’t look that impressive, but when this wafer is placed in water it generates electricity. In just a few years, two bottles of water can provide a home with 100W of electricity, 24 hours a day. Sound crazy? It is. The silicon is coated in specific metals that when placed in a glass of water in sunlight, the artificial leaf separates the hydrogen and oxygen molecules within the water.
Professor Daniel Nocera, a Professor of Energy at Harvard University, has worked on the Artificial Leaf for years. The most recent version can even be used with dirty water — an updated design prevents bacteria from sticking to the surface and allows the Artificial Leaf to function in virtually any conditions. This could literally be stuck in a puddle and generate fuel. Hydrogen is a very powerful fuel, but unfortunately his invention has outpaced the rest of the products in the world — everyday products are not yet set up to run on hydrogen gas. Nocera is advocating for technology that uses hydrogen instead of other fuels. I’m sure this is not the last time you will be hearing about this.
Like its name implies, Life Straw is a large straw allowing people to drink from virtually anywhere. Simply place the end of the straw in a lake, stream, or other water source and take a drink. The water is filtered as it passes through through the tube and is clean by the time it reaches the top. Life Straw makes a number of products in addition to straws — everything from water bottles to water tanks. This one is great for travelers in the wilderness for extended periods of time — no need to carry all of those water bottles when hiking. Life Straw does pretty cool work in the developing world as well — for each straw purchased, they provide a year of clean drinking water to a child who otherwise wouldn’t have any.
This product was one of my top choices to trial in the Indian communities where I work. Unfortunately, it isn’t on the market yet. Solvatten is completely solar-powered and doesn’t contain complicated filters in need of frequent changes. This makes it ideal for low-income households. The ten-liter tank opens like a book to reveal two five-liter sacks. Fill the sacks with water and leave in the sunlight for 2-6 hours — depending on the strength of the sunlight — and voilà! The sacks use a small piece of cloth over the opening to strain out large particles and it uses UV-B light to purify the water of microorganisms. Pretty cool! Water produced by the Solvatten meets WHO quality standards and it doubles as a water heater as well. Because of its simplicity, the Solvatten is be simple, practical solution for those living without access to clean water.
Not only does the Eliodomestico purify water, but it converts salt water into freshwater as well — and it is not much more than a clay pot and plastic tank. It uses sunlight to heat the dirty water, creating condensation. This condensation collects in a bowl at the bottom. The bowl is even fashioned to be easily carried on top of the head, which is how most villagers carry heavy items. Unfortunately, this is also not yet on the market. Plans to make it can be found online if anyone is interested in developing their own model.
Each of these innovations provide intriguing solutions to the water quality issues facing developing communities. This bottom-up approach — where millions of individuals develop products to meet localized needs — is changing how our globalized society combats these issues. And a great product alone isn’t enough. Without education, cultural understanding, and trust, a seemingly perfect product can quickly be rendered useless. This is where the challenge lies; in tandem with developing technology comes the task of finding which of these solutions fit the needs of the diverse communities around the world that are facing water insecurity.
Stay tuned next week for the next piece on solar energy innovations, and read other pieces in the Invention Series here. There are always new products entering the market. Know of an awesome product I missed? Let me know!
Cindy is a traveler with an insatiable urge to immerse herself in other cultures. She is currently working on a project providing solar lights (among other things) to urban slums in Bangalore, India. Follow her adventures at Casilocal. She is also a GV Ambassador helping map the world of social enterprises and sustainable volunteer opportunities.