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Tapping Solutions

George Oliver soaks up the view at the Atlantic Salmon exhibit at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

By Eileen McCluskey
Photography by Patrick O'Connor

Access, or lack thereof, to good, clean water is reaching global crisis proportions. Each month, 200,000 people in developing nations die from water-borne diseases, many of which are preventable. Through their different approaches, George Oliver ’82 and Dean Kamen ’73 share the same sense of urgency to solve this worldwide problem.

They come to the issue from different backgrounds, yet Dean Kamen and George Oliver are working toward the same goal. Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development Corporation, takes the one-on-one approach. His solution to the water scarcity problem comes in the form of a 225-pound purification system, which, through innovations closely guarded by DEKA, can be operated and maintained by anyone. Though it is still under wraps as DEKA finalizes its entry to market, this black box takes vapor compression distillation technology, like that developed for submarines, to a small scale with greatly improved efficiency over traditional distillation.

“This technology can enable financial and social change in the developing world,” says Kamen, who holds an impressive track record for inventing products that take off—some literally. Perhaps his best-known invention is the Segway® Human Transporter. Kamen also invented the INDEPENDENCE® iBOT® 4000 Mobility System, a wheelchair that climbs stairs and traverses uneven terrain.

Kamen envisions water entrepreneurs across the developing world, armed with the DEKA box, making a decent living by selling water in their villages.

“We could wait decades for the developing world to build all the necessary infrastructure,” Kamen says. “Or, you can take this box, put the hose on one end into anything wet, no matter how toxic or dirty, and out comes pure, clean water.”

Oliver, meanwhile, comes to the issue via large-scale tactics. The president and CEO of GE Infrastructure Water & Process Technologies has spent the last four years expanding the corporation’s water scarcity-related business, mainly through acquisitions of leading water purification and processing companies. GE’s strategy encompasses the global proliferation of purification technology that turns seawater into fresh water, as well as the broad adoption of technologies and practices to greatly reduce and reuse industrial wastewater.

“We’re moving fast,” Oliver says. “We have engineers on the ground in more than 50 countries, and are operating well over 200 industrial water and process treatment plants.”

But can Oliver, Kamen, and the world’s concerned nations move quickly enough? Some experts have warned that, with dwindling supplies and burgeoning populations, nations may start fighting over water much as they do now over oil. In the Middle East, for example, Israelis and Palestinians draw upon shared aquifers for their water. Both groups have legitimate claims to the water, but as demand outpaces supply, experts question whether the area will succumb to further conflict, or if the groups will be able to peacefully resolve their differences.

But history does not support water war theories, says Marcia Brewster, senior officer with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Division for Sustainable Development. “Historical evidence shows that human beings have generally demonstrated a willingness to cooperate on sharing water, even between nations fighting over other political issues or, for that matter, over gold and other precious resources,” she says.

The notion of water becoming the next oil, simply doesn’t hold she says. “The two are very different issues. We know, for example, that oil has substitutes. But there is no substitute for water. Access to safe water is widely recognized as a basic human right.”

Currently, more than 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Another 2.6 billion people, about 40 percent of the world’s population, lack access to basic sanitation. “And we are not talking about taps and toilets in every home,” says Brewster, who spoke at WPI’s Water Management Challenges and Solutions conference in June 2004.

Indeed, the World Health Organization defines adequate access as just 20 liters—five gallons—per person per day, within one kilometer walking distance from the home. Compare this modest requirement to typical household water consumption in the United States, which averages 74 gallons per person per day.

Last year, the U.N. launched an international “Water for Life” decade, calling on the international community to redouble its efforts to make safe drinking water and sanitation available to everyone. U.N. officials hope to halve the proportion of people without access to these two basic needs by 2015.

Of course, it would be better if water supplies were accessible in the first place. GE sees two major ways to ease the water shortage now, and solve it in the future. “Our strategy is to desalinate seawater to supplement the supply of fresh water,” says Oliver. “At the same time, we’re working to better manage existing supply.”

Typically, Oliver notes, industries waste 80 percent of the water they use. To urge its customers toward increasingly efficient water consumption, GE publicly recognizes industrial clients, via its Ecomagination awards, when they achieve considerable savings. Ford Motor Company, for instance, won a 2005 Ecomagination award. Using a GE antifoaming agent during its discharge process, Ford reduced water consumption by 230,400 gallons per year at its Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville.

GE has also plunged into desalination technology to swell available water through reverse osmosis (RO) technology.

RO has been around since 1959, but the polypropylene membranes at the heart of the process have rapidly evolved. Through recent acquisitions, GE Infrastructure Water & Process Technologies is demonstrating the corporation’s commitment and confidence in desalination as the wave of the future.

Using reverse osmosis, high-pressure pumps push seawater or brackish water across the membranes, which remove contaminants down to the ionic and molecular levels—from salts and sugars to bacteria and viruses.

Though highly effective—RO removes more than 99 percent of contaminants—the technology’s spread has been hindered by high energy consumption and waste water levels. “In the typical desalination plant today,” Oliver says, “50 percent of operating costs go to the energy it takes to pump the water across the membranes.” RO recovers only 5 to 15 percent of the water entering the system.

For now, this process is attractive only in the Middle East, where electricity is inexpensive. A GE-engineered and -operated RO plant in Algeria, for instance, slated to go online in 2007, will supply the city of Algiers with 25 percent of its water.

While GE runs plants like the one in Algeria, “We expect to accelerate the technology’s advancement by continually leveraging our materials science expertise,” Oliver says.

Ramesh Rengarajan, general manager of GE Global Technology, works on desalination’s front lines. In the coming decade, “desalination processes will see 20 percent greater efficiencies, and will be cost-efficient even for energy-expensive regions,” he predicts. “New chemistries, new materials science, and new molecular structures will reduce pressure requirements for RO membranes.” Pumps, too, will grow more efficient, while reduced friction and recaptured pressure will lower necessary energy levels. “The emerging membrane designs, engineering designs, and technologies will drive significant energy savings and reduce the waste discharge. This will put RO technologies ahead of traditional methods in use today.”

For DEKA’s little black box, however, energy consumption is not the issue. The water purifier processes 10 gallons of water an hour using just 600 watts, or less than 3 percent of the electricity required for traditional distillation.

This efficient purifier will weigh just 225 pounds when it’s released, so that a couple of reasonably strong individuals should be able to haul it to the nearest water source. It should also be relatively affordable and durable, Kamen says. DEKA estimates its manufactured cost will be about $1,000, while preliminary tests indicate a five-year life in the field.

“The remaining questions are social and political,” says Kamen. Also electrical. The box, though no energy hog, needs an electrical outlet to run. This fact will place some limitations on its use in developing countries, although, according to DEKA, many poorer nations have more reliable and widespread electrical infrastructure than they do clean water. Kamen remains steadfast: “We need to get this into people’s hands.”

To that end, says Kamen, “We’ve met individuals who think this is worth a shot. We’ve assembled a 501(c)(3) organization, and we’re receiving serious support from some well-recognized global leaders. We expect to roll out this new technology, and test out the idea by summer 2006.”

While their approaches differ, both Oliver and Kamen see hope for the world’s water ills. For Kamen, the ability to place pure water technology in the hands of individuals increases by the day. “As the technology has grown more robust, so that it can handle any type of water,” he says,

“I have become more and more excited about its ability to help solve developing countries’ water shortages.”

“The water crisis absolutely can be solved,” Oliver declares. “In the four years I’ve been building out GE’s water scarcity business, I’ve seen awareness of the issue expand tremendously. When we recognize the problem, we converge around the problem to solve it. Increasingly, ways to reuse, reduce, and recycle will become the infrastructure, rather than an afterthought.”

Brewster, too, looks toward the day when such responsibility is the norm. The current crisis, she says, “is preventable, if we begin now to respect water and stop wasting it. We need to place basic human needs at the top of the priority list. Then we can accomplish great things.”

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Last modified: Apr 20, 2006, 08:44 EDT
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