Submarine races

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

The 2012 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation was announced a few days ago, and because it has to do with water, it caught my attention. After all, clean water is as important to me as good beer, and I use a lot more of it. So when somebody finds a way to make water safer for people around the world, we all owe a debt of gratitude. The foundation of the award also has an interesting irony—but more about that later.

Ashok Gadgil of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory received the $100,000 prize “in recognition of his steady pursuit to blend research, invention, and humanitarianism for broad social impact,” according to a press release issued by the Lemelson-MIT Program.

A biographical sketch on the Lemelson-MIT website says Gadgil was inspired to study cheap forms of water purification after an outbreak of cholera killed tens of thousands of people in India in the summer of 1993. Today, biologically contaminated water is the largest environmental hazard for humans. About 2 million people, mostly children below age 5, die every year from waterborne diarrheal diseases.

Gadgil, currently the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation at the university and director of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at the lab, invented a means to kill pathogens in water for a fraction of a cent.

In that summer of ’93, Gadgil and a grad student determined that they could disinfect water with UV-C light. According to Gadgil, “We were completely amazed. Using the simplest engineering, we could disinfect water for half a cent per ton. That’s shockingly cheap. You could disinfect one person’s drinking supply for a full year for a couple of cents.”

After two years of work with a number of collaborators the final design was ready for licensing. It consists of a compact box where an ultraviolet lamp hangs over a shallow pan. Water propelled by gravity flows through the pan under the light.

About 12 seconds’ exposure to the shortwave ultraviolet radiation damages the DNA of bacteria and viruses. When that happens, they can’t reproduce or make the enzymes they need in order to live. They die shortly after they are exposed, but even if someone ingests them alive, they can’t reproduce and so nobody gets sick.

Simple, elegant, and best of all, cheap enough to use in places that need it.

He calls the system UV Waterworks. It consumes 40 watts to power the lamp and so can run on a car battery. It handles four gallons a minute, destroying six nines of bacteria and viruses. Gadgil estimates that this rate could supply 2,000 people with 10 liters each of clean water every day.

WaterHealth International is the licensee and has deployed the technology in several countries to offer affordable safe drinking water to 5 million rural people. WaterHealth does not sell individual units of UV Waterworks. The company works with local village councils on a turn-key basis. An installation includes bank-financing, public education in hygiene and sanitation, and mechanical filtering and filtering with activated charcoal before UV disinfection of the water source.

Gadgil’s jobs keep him contributing to humanitarian efforts. He helped develop fuel-efficient stoves, for instance, to be used by displaced persons in Africa.

The Lemelson-MIT Program says it “is dedicated to honoring the acclaimed and unsung heroes who have helped improve our lives through invention.”

The program issues a number of prizes and awards Inventeam grants, one of which went to the Kell High School Robotics Team from Georgia. The resulting work took them to the White House. There’s a March 6 entry about that.

The program is funded through the Lemelson Foundation, which in turn was funded by Jerome Lemelson’s personal fortune. Lemelson held hundreds of U.S. patents in key technologies, including machine vision. Claims for one patent application could grow to the point where he would spin some off to file another. Sometimes an application would include the same illustration used in an earlier Lemelson patent.

Lemelson didn’t manufacture anything. He went to people who brought out products involving the subjects of his patents and told them to pay a licensing fee or leave the market. It is a strategy called the submarine patent.

R.P. Siegel wrote about Lemelson’s strategy in the October 2004 issue of Mechanical Engineering under the title of “Down but Not Out.” According to Siegel, Lemelson’s patents could take decades working their way through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. During this time, entire markets could develop based on the same technology.

It often turned out that, as Siegel wrote, “technologies in question had become widely commercialized by others who may have known nothing of Lemelson’s work. Like the warship they’re named for, submarine patents would surface, fully loaded, in the middle of a marketplace with plenty to lose.”

No matter what you may think of the submarine patent, the money Lemelson raised seems to be going for good causes now.

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

May 2012

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