Technology By Clara Lu — Date 02.13.2018

Other water-related technologies and inventions that inspire us

The world's water crisis is in full force, but various individuals and organizations are working hard to create devices with the potential to solve this issue.

The world’s water crisis is in full force.

Approximately 844 million people around the world still lack basic access to safe drinking water – 90% of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, according to the World Health Organization’s latest statistics. In addition, a report from the United Nations warns that global water resources may only meet 60% of the world’s water demands by 2030.

Various individuals and organizations are working hard to create devices with the potential to increase global access to clean water. Their various solutions span policy, technology, and behaviour change to offer hope in this dire situation. As innovators ourselves, we’re highlighting 9 novel inventions that truly inspire us.

1. H2Pro

Around the world, many of the 783 million people who don’t have clean drinking water also don’t have access to electricity.  A new design from an Australian high school student aims to solve both problems at once – While the device purifies wastewater, it uses pollutants in the water to boost power production in a separate compartment.

[Image via: Fast Company]

In 2014, 17-year-old Cynthia Sin Nga Lam created her prototype – the H2Pro – a portable device powered only by sunlight. Dirty water goes in one end, and a titanium mesh, activated by the sun, sterilizes the water and sends it through an extra filter. The photocatalytic reaction also splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen–so someone can flip a switch and start feeding a hydrogen fuel cell to produce clean power. Detergent, soap, and other pollutants in the water help make more hydrogen.

There are similar water purification technologies but her invention stood out because it did not require an extra source of electricity; only sunlight and titania was required. Besides being low-cost and easy to maintain, the H2Pro also generated a very efficient source of clean energy.

The prototype was small but the same technology can be applied at a larger scale. On a rooftop, for example, wastewater could be sent through a titanium dioxide net and then directed through different pipes to produce power and provide purified water. The tech could also be used along with solar panels to provide even more electricity.

 

2. SE200 Community chlorine maker

[Image via: NPR.org]

An outdoor equipment manufacturer and a global health NGO engineered a clever device that can make chlorine from just water, salt and a car battery. It’s called the SE200 Community Chlorine Maker, and it uses technology developed by the military for water treatment in remote areas.

Chlorine is commonly used to disinfect water because it helps to kill many bacteria and viruses. The problem is, though, chlorine isn’t always easy to obtain. And it’s hard to know how much to use.

The SE200 is a small plastic canister that attaches to a battery with what look like miniature jumper cables. Using a special “brine bottle,” users add salt and water in amounts indicated by lines. Mix it up, and add the salt solution to the SE200. With the push of a button, the canister illuminates, and the solution begins to bubble, indicating that electrolysis is taking place.

In water, the salt breaks apart into sodium and chlorine ions. The electricity from the battery separates the negatively charged ions from the positively charged ions. The reaction releases gas, and creates bleach, or sodium hypochlorite.

There are other chlorine generators out there, but they can be expensive and difficult to use. The innovation of the SE200 is that the unique circuitry does calculations and always makes the right chlorine concentration. One teaspoon of chlorine solution from the SE200 can treat 5 gallons of water.

Over the past years, the company Mountain Safety Research and the NGO PATH have field-tested the SE200 in more than 10 countries, including Kenya, Ghana, India and HAiti. MSR released the device commercially in May 2015.

The SE200 can provide clean water for schools, health centers and water vendors. Each device costs about $200. But it can treat enough water for 200 people for about five years, MSR says.

There are other devices available for disinfecting water in a single household and options for getting clean water to entire cities. But few devices are available for places in between the two sizes. That’s the gap the SE200 is supposed to fill.

 

3. The project that won the 2017 Stockholm Junior Water Prize

[Image via: SIWI.org]

Two U.S. high school students, Rachel Chang and Ryan Thorpe, won the world’s most prestigious competition for water-related research for their novel approach to detect and purify water contaminated with bacteria.

They were awarded the 2017 Stockholm Junior Water Prize in 2017 for their project that judges believe could prevent waterborne diseases and expand potable water throughout the world.

Noting that waterborne diseases cause 3.4 million deaths annually, the students constructed a system that detects and purifies water contaminated with E. coli., Salmonella, Cholera, and Shigella more rapidly and sensitively than conventional methods.

Their system detects as little as one reproductive bacteria colony per liter instantaneously and eliminates bacterial presence in approximately 10 seconds. In contrast, conventional methods have detection limits of up to 1,000 colonies and take one to two days.

“The winners used fundamental science and an eloquent way to address pathogenic bacteria in drinking water,” said Victoria Dyring, chair of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize jury. “The project has the potential to revolutionize the future of water quality. The winners displayed exceptional intelligence, enthusiasm, and passion for water and human health.”

 

4. A drinkable book

[Image via: Waterislife.com]

In partnership with non-profit Water is Life, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University developed this education and filtration tool.

The Drinkable Book is a two-in-one resource. Each page of the book provides basic water and sanitation advice, such as the importance of keeping contaminants like rubbish and faeces away from water, often unknown in developing countries. Perhaps more novel is that the advice is printed on “scientific coffee filter” paper that can be used to purify drinking water and reduce 99.9% of bacteria.

It is offered in a variety of languages and geared toward people who may not know their water is contaminated. Each book has enough filtration sheets to provide its reader with clean water for four years, and is being distributed in Ghana, Kenya, Haiti, Ethiopia, India and Tanzania.

 

5. Water-generating billboard

[Image via: Time.com]

The billboard pictured here in Lima, Peru, is the first in the world that produces potable water from air – around 100 liters a day from nothing more than humidity, a basic filtration system, and a little gravitational ingenuity.

Although Lima sits along the southern Pacific Ocean with an average humidity of 83%, it is a coastal desert, meaning the city sees perhaps half an inch of precipitation annually (Lima is the second largest desert city in the world after Cairo). The city thus depends on drainage from the Andes as well as runoff from glacier melt – both sources on the decline because of climate change.

The University of Engineering and Technology of Peru (UTEC) was looking for something splashy to kick off its application period for 2013 enrolment. It turned to ad agency Mayo DraftFCB, which struck on the idea of a billboard that would convert Lima’s H2O-saturated air into potable water. And then they actually built one.

It’s not entirely self-sufficient, requiring electricity to power the five devices that comprise the billboard’s inverse osmosis filtration system, each device responsible for generating up to 20 liters. The water is then transported through small ducts to a central holding tank at the billboard’s base, where you’ll find a water faucet.

According to Mayo DraftFCB, the billboard produced 9,450 liters of water in just three months, which equals the water consumption of hundreds of families per month. The billboard was placed along the Pan-American Highway when summer started, and was designed to inspire young Peruvians to study engineering at UTEC while simultaneously illustrating how advertising can be more than just an eyesore.

The city’s residents could certainly use the help. According to The Independent piece ominously titled “The desert city in serious danger of running dry,” about 1.2 million residents of Lima lack running water entirely, depending on unregulated private-company water trucks to deliver the goods.

 

6. Fog catchers

[Image via: The Guardian]

As in most of rural Morocco, climate change and population pressures have led to more unpredictable rainfall patterns and the depletion of natural water sources. In recent years, repeated cycles of intense drought followed by flash floods have led to deaths and the devastation of local infrastructure.

However, the Sidi Ifni region does have one precious resource: fog. On average, it experiences 143 days of fog a year. Over the past 10 years, Dar Si Hmad has erected vast mesh nets to capture the moisture at an altitude of 1,225m on the slopes of Mount Boutmezguida – for what is now the largest fog-harvesting project in the world.

About 600 square metres of mesh nets capture water particles from the fog, which then condense and drip into collection trays. Roughly 6,300 litres of water can be harvested daily. The water is then filtered and mixed with underground water. More than 8 km of pipelines have been installed to share the water between about 400 people in five villages.

The benefits are obvious: relatively clean water that is both instant and free. The population used to spend at least four or five hours going to collect water every day from wells in neighbouring villages, or collecting the train in tanks during the rainy season.

The idea of harvesting fog was first developed in South America in the 1980s and there are other projects in Chile, Peru, Ghana, Eritrea, South Africa, and California in the US. In 2017, Dar Si Hmad plans to start installing the next generation of bigger and better “cloudfisher” nets, developed in Germany. These larger nets will double the amount of water collected and connect another eight villages to the network.

 

7. MIT’s electrochemical water purification method

[Image via: MIT.edu]

When it comes to removing very dilute concentrations of pollutants from water, existing separation methods tend to be energy- and chemical-intensive. Now, a new method developed at MIT could provide a selective alternative for removing even extremely low levels of unwanted compounds.

The new approach is described in the journal Energy and Environmental Science, in a paper by MIT postdoc Xiao Su, Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering T. Alan Hatton, and five others at MIT and at the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany.

The system uses a novel method, relying on an electrochemical process to selectively remove organic contaminants such as pesticides, chemical waste products, and pharmaceuticals, even when these are present in small yet dangerous concentrations. The approach also addresses key limitations of conventional electrochemical separation methods, such as acidity fluctuations and losses in performance that can happen as a result of competing surface reactions.

Current systems for dealing with such dilute contaminants include membrane filtration, which is expensive and has limited effectiveness at low concentrations, and electrodialysis and capacitive deionization, which often require high voltages that tend to produce side reactions.

In the new system, the water flows between chemically treated, or “functionalized,” surfaces that serve as positive and negative electrodes. These electrode surfaces are coated with what are known as Faradaic materials, which can undergo reactions to become positively or negatively charged. These active groups can be tuned to bind strongly with a specific type of pollutant molecule, as the team demonstrated using ibuprofen and various pesticides. The researchers found that this process can effectively remove such molecules even at parts-per-million concentrations.

In the meantime, they are working on scaling up their prototype devices in the lab and improving the chemical robustness.

 

8. Seabin

[GIF via: Huffingtonpost]

The research is clear: Man-made pollution is choking the oceans. From plastics that swirl around the world trashing beaches and killing marine animals, to chemical and oil spills that poison the sea, humans are to blame for much of the oceans’ deteriorating health.

Fortunately for our planet, some people have dedicated themselves to reversing mankind’s mistakes.

The SeaBin, created by two Australian surfers, is a bucket with a pump and water filtration system that is designed to suck in any floating trash into a removable mesh bag. The bucket includes an optional oil-water separator system that will pull oil right out of the ocean, then spit out cleaner water through the other side of the pump.

The water filtration system is much like what you’d find in a fish tank, but it has the potential to clean up an entire ocean. The Seabin can be installed at any floating dock and is designed to suck up any trash or oil floating nearby in harbors.

The creators of Seabin spent a decade perfecting the prototype in a design center in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, and turned to crowdfunding in 2015 to start producing Seabins on a larger scale – focusing on marinas and yacht clubs as their target market. A number of Seabins have been installed at marinas around the world, including San Diego and Finland. The product going on sale to the public since 2016.

 

9. The Ocean Cleanup

[Image via: Business Insider]

When Boyan Slat first presented his plan to clear out half of the trash floating in the garbage patch between California and Hawaii, he was just a teenager with a really ambitious idea. Now, seven years later, his blueprints are close to becoming reality.

In May 2017, Slat released an updated design of his prototype, which included a fleet of his V-shaped systems that will drift across the Pacific ocean and simultaneously sweep up debris. The Ocean Cleanup announced that the company would begin clearing out the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2018.

The systems are designed to float on the surface of an area that collects pollution from around the world, and skim plastic off the top layer of water.

Slat’s original design involved mooring a massive plastic-collecting trap to the seabed 4.5 kilometers below — a controversial plan that gave rise to concerns among scientists. Slat says the group now plans to deploy smaller arrays with underwater “anchors” that drift about 600 meters beneath the surface. Theoretically, the anchors will hold the plastic collecting systems in the spots where they can collect garbage most efficiently.

“These systems will automatically drift or gravitate to where the plastic is,” Slat says. “Instead of us being able to clean up 42% of the patch in 10 years, we can now clean up 50% of the patch in five years.”

This new system has only been tested in labs and simulations, so it’s still theoretical. But the advantages offered by the smaller, one-kilometer-long arrays may help assuage some concerns, though it may create just as many new ones. Some scientists remain skeptical, but we’ll only know the results of Slat’s audacious plan when it becomes available after implementation later this year.

From producing water out of thin air and fogs, to detecting contaminants in water, to removing plastic waste in oceans, these technological innovations address our global water crisis in various ways. While we may question the effectiveness and limitations of some of these solutions, there is no doubt that they are creative, novel, and inspiring.

At Mitte, we are also playing our part in providing an innovative solution to improve lives through better water. Our water system is the first in the world that both purifies and enhances tap water, allowing users to drink not just pure, but also healthy water* at home. Our distillation-based technology first purifies tap water by removing contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, microplastics, heavy metals, and more, then enhances the clean water with essential minerals that are good for health*.

When it comes to solving the water crisis, there are no silver bullets. While complex problems don’t always have simple solutions, we remain optimistic that the innovations and technology can make the future better for everyone.

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