As of 2005, one in six people are without access to clean water. Perhaps they spend a huge fraction of their income to gain access to a truck that distributes clean water to them, which, ultimately, might not even be clean. They might simply drink available water that holds dangerous bacteria, or that is laced with chemicals. Slightly less than 1 billion people wake up knowing that their first demand of the day is to find any source of water at all.
It isn’t as if water purification hasn’t been perfected in a number of other contexts. Drug companies purify water in huge quantities to produce medicine. The U.S. Navy found methods by which drinking water could be desalinated.
But both of these methods lack the level of portability needed to address the issue of water deprivation in impoverished regions. Methods like chlorine tablets exist, along with reverse osmosis plants. Yet problems of portability persist. It’s possible only some pollutants get purified, and others remain. Sometimes parts are too expensive to replace or are difficult to find.
The struggle with water purification for those in poverty has obviously been a long one, but it looks like the end might be in sight. It comes in the form of a plain-looking box, no larger than a mini refrigerator. Behind its design is a unique story, and its benefits have been a long time coming.
Dean Kamen has been working on what he calls the Slingshot for over 10 years. The inventor of the Segway, Kamen came to the project when Baxter International asked for his help. They had built a device to perform a procedure called peritoneal dialysis, which uses sterile saline to filter a patient’s blood. Kamen’s job was to refine and improve the machine.
It required huge amounts of purified water, or what amounted to multiple gallons a day for each patient. Kamen and his team turned to a simple scientific principle to solve their problem: they recycled the energy used when water evaporates. Now, Kamen has a device that he says can “take any input water, whether it’s got bioburden, organics, inorganics, chrome and… make pure water come out.” Kamen explains that the Slingshot could provide perfectly clean water using less power than a typical hairdryer.
Kamen’s last challenge is getting the Slingshot where it needs to go. Alongside Coca-Cola in October of 2012, Kamen announced plans with the company to bring the Slingshot to remote regions of Africa and Latin America. The partnership had already sent 15 of the machines to Ghana in 2011. Also involved in the process were the Inter-American Development Bank and Africare.
But Kamen has even bigger plans. His next project will work to reach even more people in need of clean water with his energy-efficient Stirling generator, solving the lack of electricity that could inhibit the use of the Slingshot. In the near future, Kamen has made it quite possible that millions of people will no longer face water insecurity.
— Rachel Davis