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Purifying Water on the Cheap

From a public health standpoint, one of the major issues facing undTeam WaterPLUSerdeveloped countries is the supply of safe and clean drinking water. Countries trying to solve this problem are often daunted by the high costs of traditional water purification systems.

However, a team of current and former Triangle area university students, including Pratt sophomore Will Patrick, have come up with a plan they feel can address this issue. If their efforts come to fruition, they believe that they can market a device costing less than $10 a unit, which could help reduce the waterborne pathogens in these countries.

Their strategy is to take advantage of the same technology that lights a host of everyday products from digital clocks to exit signs and use it to purify water.

“Recently, light emitting diodes (LED) have been developed that emit light in the ultra-violet (UV) range,” Patrick said. “It is already known that UV light can kill pathogens, and since LEDs use much less energy, last longer and are cheaper than traditional UV lamps, we looked into the feasibility of using UV LEDs to purify water.”

Essentially, the device would attach to the end of the faucet, and UV light would kill any pathogens in the water as it passes out.

The result of these efforts is a business plan that they have been submitting to competitions locally and nationally for more than a year. In March, the team – known as WaterPLUS – received second-place honors in the global health category of the latest Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition. The annual event is run by the University of Washington Business School’s Global Business Center.

“Our approach is a bit different than others,” Patrick said. “Most strategies involve purifying at the source. We hope to market a device directly to the consumer, who can then purify the water before use. Studies have shown there are still bacteria and other agents present in water that has been treated on the large scale.”

Also, the WaterPLUS does not involve chemicals, which can often affect the taste of the purified water.

Currently, given the state of technology and production capabilities, the new devices would sell for about $50 each, Patrick said.

“Probably the first group of consumers would be middle-class people living in overcrowded cities who don’t want to take any chances,” Patrick said. “However, as the technology improves and more units are built, we anticipate that the price would come down pretty fast.”

The group hopes to get to market by 2010 with the first devices.

Until then, they are raising funds to continue research and start building prototype devices. Winning competitions such as the most recent one helps, since it came with a $2,000 award.

Other team members are Naman Shah, an M.D. Ph.D. candidate at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC); Saket Vora, electrical engineering graduate of North Carolina State University; Win Basset, UNC law student; Kari Leech, UNC School of Public Health masters student; and Joel Thomas, UNC alumnus and executive director of Nourish International.

“One of the most exciting parts of the project is that we all come from very different backgrounds and can offer our own individual areas of expertise,” said Patrick, who is in the mechanical engineering and materials science program and also serves as the president of the Duke chapter of Engineers without Borders.

It is estimated that more than 220 million people across the world do not have access to safe water.