Next time you pour a glass of fresh, pure water, consider that unclean drinking water is the world’s largest single contributor to disease. Two billion people—often those living in the poorest communities—do not have access to clean drinking water, and 200 children die every hour from water-borne illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, and typhoid.
For Ashok Gadgil, senior scientist in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, clean drinking water hits close to home. He grew up in India, where he earned a degree in physics before enrolling as a PhD student at UC Berkeley in the late 1970s. He returned to India to work for a nonprofit for five years before returning for good to the US. “I saw how widespread and serious the problem of safe drinking water is, and I wanted to do something about it,” he says. “There is no district in India—out of 500 districts—where drinking water safety is not a problem.” When an outbreak of a mutant strain of cholera killed 10,000 people throughout India and Thailand in 1993, Gadgil took action.
“I had previously given literature about [water contamination] to my colleagues in India since the solution would benefit people there much more so than here,” he says. “But after the outbreak, I thought, ‘I can’t get other people to do this,’ so I did it on my own time.” With borrowed equipment, donated lab space, and time away from his family and work—research on industrial indoor air quality at Lawrence Berkeley Lab (LBL)—Gadgil began developing a prototype of what would become an ultraviolet light-based water purification system. “We have the technical research base here in Berkeley and at LBL that we can tap into,” he says, and his colleagues were supportive of the project.
About the size of a microwave, the mechanism, dubbed UV Waterworks, uses ultraviolet light to disable pathogenic DNA in water so that it cannot replicate; therefore, the organism can’t multiply. The flow rate through the machine is about twice that of a bathtub faucet at a cost of a couple pennies a day. It works with a pump, so it does not require a pressurized water delivery system or electrical outlet; the unit can be connected to a power grid, solar panels, or a wind system. The average installation is designed to provide a community of 3,000 people with up to 20 liters of safe drinking water per day; it effectively treats water contaminated with bacteria, viruses, and Cryptosporidium while also removing particles, tastes, and odors.
In 1996, LBL licensed the technology to WaterHealth International, a company founded by socially responsible investors that develops innovative water purification and disinfection technology for rural communities and disaster relief. “We had to use innovative approaches and develop a financially viable business model so the technology could be self-propelling,” Gadgil explains. WaterHealth now produces Gadgil’s lab-built prototype for commercial use in India and the Philippines and plans to branch into Mexico, Brazil, and Latin America over the next several years. The installations —over 350 worldwide—now serve over 150,000 people and continue to grow, with projects in Bangladesh, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and beyond. “The company needs to raise capital,” says Gadgil. “We would like to be serving several hundred million people but we are nowhere near there.”
There are several properties in the Bay Area that use UV Waterworks, though domestic use is not WaterHealth’s focus—or desire. “WaterHealth is committed to making sure that its main use is to provide safe drinking water for developing countries,” says Gadgil. “They could make more money selling it in the US for rural housing, but the company is committed to making a difference to the large part of humanity that does not have safe water.” To obtain UV Waterworks for use in your home, “you’d have to overcome reluctance on the part of the company,” warns Gadgil.
Gadgil is now working on ways to remove arsenic from drinking water in Bangladesh; 15 companies are competing for the right to license that technology. “New technology is always in the works. It does not end here.”