Combining hydrogen, oxygen, and inspiration

September 17, 2009
By: Tim Heston

I was browsing the news recently when an article about Dean Kamen jumped out at me. You might know him as the founder of FIRST, president of DEKA Research & Development, inventor of the Segway® PT , holder of numerous patents, or one of the keynote speakers at the 2008 FABTECH® Intl. & AWS Welding Show. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is aimed at getting young people interested in acquiring 21st-century skills and knowledge; DEKA is a research and design firm that employs more than 200 engineers in various disciplines; and the inventions and patents are proof that he's the real McCoy. With a resume like that, you might think he's trying to save manufacturing singlehandedly. He seems to specialize in motion. In addition to the Segway personal transporter, he has developed an all-terrain wheelchair, continues work on an advanced prosthetic arm, and uses FIRST to promote the development of robots through FIRST Robotics Competitions. His latest invention is much more modest. It concerns plain old water.
Water has been making headlines for years. Scarcity seems to be the biggest problem. Although most people drink less than a half-gallon a day, we consume large amounts of water indirectly. The crops needed to support a single vegetarian require about 500 gallons a day; raising animals for a carnivorous diet requires 2.5 times that amount. Water supplies are under continuous stress for two reasons First, people throughout the world are climbing out of poverty and adding meat to their diets, and second, climate patterns are changing. A glaring example is in Australia; much of the continent has been suffering a drought for nearly a decade. Another problem, one that competes with scarcity for headlines, is the scarcity of clean water. According to a World Health Organization report that calls this a "silent emergency," this problem affects about 2.6 billion people. It details some of the problems that stem from using unclean water for drinking, bathing, and sanitation. "Water and sanitation are among the most important determinants of public health." Without access to clean water, "families living in rural villages and urban slums are trapped in a cycle of ill-health and poverty" and "suffer the burden of disease caused by dirty water and poor hygiene." And if that's not enough, more than "40 billion work hours are lost in Africa to the need to fetch drinking water." This is where Kamen comes in. He has devised a portable water filtration system, named the Slingshot. It boils, distills, and vaporizes the input—nearly any polluted muck—and turns it into clean H2O. The output is about 250 gallons per day. Is it theoretical? No, it actually works. Kamen sent two units to a village in Honduras back in 2006, and he says they worked as expected. The holdup now is the cost. According to Kamen, each unit costs several hundred thousand dollars to manufacture. He's trying to get it down to $2,000 each. Kamen, who grew up in the industrialized world, has come up with plenty of inventions that benefit people in the industrialized world, people who would think nothing of dropping $1.25 for a 16-oz. bottle of water. This invention is different. It will benefit the billions of people who live in nonindustrialized parts of the world and probably have never seen 16 ounces of clean water.
Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314