As a German soldier in Bosnia two decades ago, Martin Drewes remembers fretting over children subsisting on “a little bit” of bottled water, while the rest was too dirty to drink.
“It’s always been at the back of my mind,” the idea that this life-sustaining resource is taken for granted, the 43-year-old mechanical engineer says in his spartan office on a former Soviet base that’s now Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Science. After all, in his native Saxony-Anhalt, fresh H2O is everywhere — so plentiful that a bigger worry is the Elbe River inundating the lush, green countryside.
Years later, after an unsuccessful attempt to create a water wheel–powered electric generator for use in disaster-hit communities in the developing world, he had an idea. While his pontoon-mounted dynamo tied to a riverbank couldn’t do much more than charge a mobile phone, he thought the water wheel turning it might be repurposed for something more meaningful: making non-potable water drinkable.
Drewes then watched a kids’ video — narrated by a cartoon mouse — explaining how the crew of the International Space Station uses sophisticated filters to turn their “peepee” into drinking water. “This was the key moment. I couldn’t let it go; I wanted to know how they were doing this.” He thought his stationary paddleboat could power such a system but discovered that the pump’s pulsation quickly damaged filter membranes so fine that they discriminate between water molecules and those of contaminants.
That led to his device’s unique gas-cushioned diaphragm that absorbs the pulsating water’s repetitive shocks and allows a continuous, even flow through several varieties of filters, including charcoal cylinders and the delicate paper nano-filters. After it proved operational on the Elbe, Drewes teamed up with researchers and local village women along Kenya’s Isiukhu River, to test it where potable tap water isn’t taken for granted.
With color-coded valves and buttons, ’anybody who can operate a mobile phone can operate this.’
“He’s one of the most passionate people I know,” says fellow mechanical engineering researcher Markus Müller, who tested a Waver prototype, fitted with a spiral pump he’d designed, in western Kenya last year.
Drewes’ enthusiasm for hardware was evident early on. As a bored teenager, he dismantled every electrical connection in his house after being grounded for misbehavior. His mother, Susanne Drewes, remembers him doing such things “all the time.” Even at the tender age of 6, he and a friend took apart a discarded moped. “Nobody had any idea that that thing would ever run,” she says. But it did, and today her son has graduated to motorcycles, which he races as a hobby.
His further education was something his mother is especially proud of, having been denied it because of her avowed Christian faith in the communist German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. “In the GDR, it wouldn’t have been possible for him to go to school,” she says. And unlike many who lost jobs after the Iron Curtain opened in 1989, the hospital nurse and her husband, a mechanic, always had work and maintained a bucolic lifestyle a half hour’s drive north of Magdeburg.
To the mind of Thomas Klaus, an acoustic engineer for Porsche, “you can have the best invention, but if you don’t know how to market it and advertise its best aspects, there’s no point.” That’s where his sister, Martina Findling, comes into Drewes’ story. Growing up in neighboring Saxony among six brothers and one sister, she seemed shy, Klaus remembers.
But to fulfill her dream of doing “something that would benefit humanity,” Findling, 37, had to break out of that shell. Mutual acquaintances in Magdeburg, where she earned her business administration degree from Otto von Guericke University, led her to Drewes, who needed to elevate his device to a larger stage. She’s been the organizing force behind the university-based startup Inflotech. She’s also helped put the word out — to the point where the German government recognized the company’s work last year along with 31 other innovators, providing them with a mentoring network and workshops to develop their businesses.
The four-year partnership between Drewes, who has a longtime girlfriend, and Findling, who’s married with four children, has yielded a scalable successor to the 2,000-liter-per-day floating Waver. The new device, called Pure Powerblock, is a land-based filtration system with twice the capacity and can operate with water, solar or wind power. With color-coded valves and buttons, “anybody who can operate a mobile phone can operate this,” Drewes says, meaning literacy is not a barrier.
But obstacles to the startup’s success remain. There are lots of other purification systems being developed and not a lot of venture capitalists investing in them. Governments have to step in, experts say, with rich nations funding relief efforts and developing nations providing for their own citizens. Those efforts can be complicated by mismanagement and corruption, often leaving aid groups as the fallback for protecting vulnerable populations from water contaminated by human waste.
In the case of the Waver, “the main challenge is to build the pump in the community where it is used,” Müller says. Drewes estimates that it will take five years to develop a local industry in countries like Kenya. That process could use something as ubiquitous as discarded beer kegs to fashion water wheels, although some filter components, costing as much as $1,100 apiece, would still need to be shipped from Europe or elsewhere.
To foster that effort, Drewes says there are interested backers he can’t yet name. But Findling has helped secure $165,000 from the federal German Investment Bank to cover personnel and testing starting Jan. 1, allowing Drewes and Findling to see how far up the river the Waver will go.
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