Dean Kamen is possibly the world's greatest living inventor. Although he has been well-known among futurists for years, he rose to wider fame when he invented the Segway in 2001. His inventions also include the world's first wheelchair capable of climbing and descending stairs, and the world's first drug infusion pump which is used to provide diabetics with insulin on an as-needed basis. Kamen is remarkable because unlike most inventors, he does not work under the umbrella of a large corporation, university, or government agency. He is truly a DIY innovator.
Kamen's latest invention sets the stage to change the lives of billions of people over the next decade. His new water purification system, dubbed the Slingshot, is far cheaper and more accessible than anything that has come before it. The refrigerator-sized Slingshot is capable of taking “anything wet,” in Kamen's words, and transforming it into water that is so pure that it can be both consumed and used in sterile injections. It can convert ocean water, polluted water, or raw sewage from an outhouse into pure drinking water.
It works by heating the “raw” water to a boiling point, compressing it under just the right amount of pressure, then allowing it to condense and cool in a separate chamber of the machine. The technique is known as vapor compression distillation. The amount of energy that is required to power the machine is equivalent to the amount it takes to run a small coffee-maker, and enough energy is left over to allow the users to charge cell phones and other electronic devices. It can run on any source of energy, including cow dung. Since the parts of the world where clean water is in short supply tend to also be the places where electricity is in short supply, the ability to power the machine on cow dung is very important for its success. It means that it can work in societies which do not have any energy infrastructure in place.
Kamen plans to sell the machines for $1,000 to $2,000 – a bargain, considering that the machine can produce a thousand liters of clean water every day, and is designed to last for several years without any maintenance. Kamen envisions them being placed in communities all over the world and shared as communal property. He has partnered with Coca-Cola to use Coke's distribution channels to bring the Slingshot to the most remote parts of the world. At this price, even the poorest communities should be able to afford a Slingshot.
Nearly 50% of the world's disease burden is due to people not having access to clean water. More than 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean water, and the UN projects this number will rise to 2.7 billion people by 2025 if nothing changes. But the Slingshot will make sure that things do indeed change. It removes salt, chemicals, urine, feces, poison, parasites, bacteria, eggs, viruses, and all other substances that make water undrinkable.
At the Slingshot's price and energy requirements, water shortages – arguably the biggest cause of extreme poverty in the world today – could be virtually eliminated, as the machine is rolled out to the poorest parts of the world via Coca-Cola's world-class distribution channels. In the longer term, Slingshot (or its successors) could even be able to “greenify” regions of the world like the Arabian Peninsula, which have plenty of salt water nearby but very little freshwater. We could solve many of the environmental problems that our agricultural systems have created by recycling polluted water.
97.5% of the world's water is salt water, and another 1.8% is locked up in the glaciers and ice caps. All of our water shortages are due to lack of access to the remaining 0.7% of the world's water. If we can tap into just a tiny fraction of the previously unusable water by removing salt, we could provide plenty of water for everyone on earth.
By 2030 – Less than 3% of the world's people do not have access to clean drinking water.