Jun 17, 2014

Pure Genius: How Dean Kamen's Invention Could Bring Clean Water To Millions

Via @PopSci... At first glance, the bright red shipping container that sits by the side of the road in a slum outside Johannesburg doesn't look like something that could transform hundreds of lives. Two sliding doors open to reveal a small shop counter, behind which sit rows of canned food, toilet paper, cooking oil, and first-aid supplies. Solar panels on the roof power wireless Internet and a television, for the occasional soccer game. And two faucets dispense free purified drinking water to anyone who wants it.

Created primarily by Coca-Cola and Deka Research and Development, the New Hampshire company founded by inventor Dean Kamen, the container is meant to be a kind of "downtown in a box": a web-connected bodega-cum-community center that can be dropped into underdeveloped villages all over the world. Coke calls it an Ekocenter. It's a pithy name, but it masks the transformative technology hidden within the container.

Inside the big red box sits a smaller one, about the size of a dorm fridge, called a Slingshot. It was developed by Kamen, the mastermind behind dozens of medical-equipment inventions and, most famously, the Segway personal transportation device. Kamen is the closest thing to a modern-day Thomas Edison. He holds hundreds of patents, and his creations have improved countless lives. His current projects include a robotic prosthetic arm for DARPA and a Stirling engine that generates affordable electricity by using "anything that burns" for fuel. The Slingshot, more than 10 years in the making, could have a bigger impact than all of his other inventions combined.

Kamen's company, Deka, inhabits three refurbished 19th-century textile-mill buildings in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Photograph by JJ Sulin

Using a process called vapor compression distillation, a single Slingshot can purify more than 250,000 liters of water per year, enough to satisfy the needs of about 300 people. And it can do so with any water source—sewage, seawater, chemical waste—no matter how dirty.

For communities that lack clean water, the benefit is obvious, but to realize that potential, the Slingshot needs to reach them first. Which is where Coke comes in: The company is not just a soft-drink peddler; it is arguably the largest, most sophisticated distribution system in the world. That's important because the scale of the water crisis the world faces is unprecedented.

Water seems so abundant it's easy to forget how many people don't have a clean source of it. According to the World Health Organization, nearly a billion people lack ready access to safe drinking water, and hundreds of thousands die every year as a result. Many more fall terribly ill.

Plenty of water-purification tools exist, of course—chlorine tablets, reverse-osmosis plants—but they all have drawbacks. Either they're not adequately portable; they require replacement parts that can be hard to come by; or, most vexing of all, they remove only certain kinds of impurities, leaving others to poison the unwitting.

Kamen calls the global water crisis a "Goliath" of a problem, which suggests that he is David. He offers a quick refresher on biblical lore: David, it bears remembering, defeated Goliath with a slingshot.

"In my life, nothing is ever simple or easy," Kamen says. "I didn't wake up one day and say, 'Wow, there's a global water problem. I think I'll work on that.' " He's sitting in his office in an old brick mill building by the Merrimack River in Manchester, New Hampshire. A life-size cardboard Darth Vader leans against one wall, and a wooden chair painted to resemble a seated Albert Einstein sits among a circle of leather swivel chairs. Photos of Kamen's various helicopters (he's had a number over the years and occasionally flies to Deka from his hilltop estate) hang on the wall while outtakes from his dad's work as an illustrator for Mad Magazine and Tales from the Crypt decorate the hallway outside.

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Pure Genius: How Dean Kamen's Invention Could Bring Clean Water To Millions
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