Why you should care
Because this portable gadget cleans water better and cheaper.
The Indian state of Kerala was hit by once-in-a-century floods last August that claimed 450 lives and displaced well over a million people. Crowded into makeshift camps — with water everywhere but none to drink — conditions were ripe for the spread of deadly diseases like cholera and typhoid. As governments, individuals and nongovernmental organizations scrambled to assist, one organization was able to rely on a new tool.
A few weeks after the floods, the Rotary Club of Greater Cochin installed three Intewa AQUALOOP Taps: at a hospital kitchen that services 1,500 patients a day, a school for special needs children and an orphanage. The taps went a long way toward “keeping the affected population safe and eliminating the spread of infectious diseases,” explains Vijay Nair, the club’s service projects chair who stepped in to help with disaster efforts.
The Intewa AQUALOOP Tap — which functions on gravity alone and can purify up to 528 gallons of water a day — relies on ultrafiltration technology developed for use in domestic and municipal gray- and rainwater harvesting systems. Oliver Ringelstein, Intewa’s founder, managing director and chief inventor, found that by removing all the bells and whistles from his domestic units — they’re used worldwide — the company could produce a robust and low-cost portable version. Right now, the AQUALOOP Tap is more of a “cool idea” than a core marketing objective for the small company, says Ringelstein. But this may change once the international aid community gets wind of its prowess.
There are, of course, other portable filtration units on the market, but they’re — broadly speaking — either expensive and finicky to maintain or cheap and nasty. Ringelstein, an engineer who founded Intewa in 1993 and tests all prototypes in his home in Aachen, Germany, is a pioneer of using “ultrafiltration” for domestic applications. The process, which relies largely on particularly fine (0.02 microns) membranes to remove “all bacteria and most germs” and does not require electricity (although a small pump can speed things up) or chemicals to do their business, had previously only been used in larger settings.
The unit can pump out more than 1 gallon of clean water per minute.
Because the membranes are a physical barrier (they look kind of like a ball of string, albeit one that provides 65 square feet worth of filtration), Ringelstein warns that they cannot remove dissolved minerals like salt or heavy metals. So if you wanted to install a tap in your yurt — yes, it can also be used as a regular water filtration method — get the nearest water source tested, unless you’re harvesting rainwater, which never contains dissolved minerals. That said, in an emergency situation, go ahead and drink the filtered water. “It’s better not to die from bacteria or germs in the short term,” he says, explaining that heavy metals take years to accumulate in your body.
The people of Greater Cochin are still using the donated units daily, more than six months after the crisis. Nair says the taps have worked well with different water sources including, “pretreated water, hard water and brackish water … allowing us to use it for cooking and drinking purposes.” Independent testing, he claims, “has shown the water to be safe and potable.” Just before going to press, Ringelstein confirmed that three units were on their way to Mozambique to deal with the aftermath of cyclones Ida and Kenneth. With latest reports confirming cholera outbreaks there, they can’t get there soon enough.
The system is easily assembled by one person in less than 20 minutes (it’s not nearly as confusing as an Ikea sleeper couch). While the “ultrafiltration flow rate” — that’s the scientific term for “a trickle” — may not look like much, the unit can pump out more than 1 gallon of clean water per minute.
While Ringelstein and company have done everything they can to keep costs down, the tap’s price tag ($1,700) still makes it out of the question for those who need it most. Which is why he thinks its future lies in servicing organizations or entire communities (a couple of units are on their way to Cameroon now). After all, a single unit can clean around 792,500 gallons of water in five years — at a cost of 0.2 cents per gallon.
I’ll drink to that.