Michael Pritchard: How to make filthy water drinkable

Speaker

Michael Pritchard is an inventor and entrepreneur – the founder of LIFESAVER systems.

Summary

Half the people who drink unsafe water will suffer from diarrhea, and plenty of people die. In the aftermath of a major hurricane or tsunami the main focus is on restoring water, and building camps to provide it. Even during Hurricane Katrina in the USA, it took 5 days to get fresh water to the camps – people were shooting each other to get water until then. Disaster camps also spread disease quickly – forcing tens of thousands of people to stay so close together. Instead of congregating in one place, people would be better off staying near home and rebuilding their life.

To solve this problem, Michael built a hand powered filter – it looks like a bike pump built into a water bottle. Michael ran a demonstration – creating some disgusting water by mixing Thames water with algae from a pond, sewage effluent, and rabbit droppings. After filling and pumping a few times, a spray of clean water came out which he drank.

It filters down to 15nm – which is enough to remove viruses such as polio. Previous hand filters filtered to 200 nm – the same size as bacteria. This meant it was possible for bacteria to get through. It runs for 6,000 L, and then stops working (to protect users).

By shipping these to disaster sites, people can stay put and focus on their own home. Outside of disasters, this will reduce the need for building expensive water infrastructure. Michael estimates that everyone can have access to fresh drinking water for 20 billion dollars, and millennial goals can be achieved for 8 billion dollars.

My Thoughts

I am skeptical of a sales pitch dressed up as a TED talk, and disappointed this didn’t go more into the design or distribution side of things. The costs were also glossed over – at one point he said half a cent per day, but I’m unclear if that is an ongoing running cost (chemicals, cleaning, electricity) or the cost of the filter divided by its lifetime. As he didn’t detail the design of the filter, it’s hard to judge if other infrastructure or consumables are needed.

While it seems like a great idea for disaster relief, we’d need more details on the costs outside of this – I get the impression it could be high. There are also issues of distribution – disaster relief agencies that took 5 days to respond to hurricane Katrina would still need to distribute the bottles. Looking into his profile http://www.lifesaversystems.com/michaelpritchard it looks like his current main clients are UK disaster relief, the military, and Malaysian government.

While I’m sure this is a worthy invention, it is disappointing that so little detail came from this talk. Did I learn anything from it? not much – it raises more questions than real ideas.

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