As head of the global charity Operation Blessing, one of Bill Horan’s top priorities is getting clean drinking water to disaster zones.
Frustrated with the lack of portable treatment options, he approached MIOX, an Albuquerque company that specializes in water disinfection systems, about developing a handheld chlorinating system.
Turns out, one of MIOX’s founders and former CTO Rodney Herrington, had already spun off his own company to develop just that – a device he calls H2gO that runs on one simple ingredient: salt.
“This is really an amazing product,” Horan said. “There is nothing comparable.”
Although the device has gotten more publicity as a consumer product available for outdoor enthusiasts at stores like REI, Herrington says its real promise – and his main objective in leaving MIOX – is in providing a simple, inexpensive way to save lives.
“It’s nice for hikers and all, but the real goal is to have this in the developing world where thousands of people are dying every day from waterborne diseases,” he says. “Half the hospital beds in developing countries are populated by people with waterborne diseases. This single device can clean enough dirty water to keep a family of four alive for 10 years for about 60 cents a year.”
[Editor’s Note: It should be noted that the cost to the end-user to operate the device for a small family is 60 cents per year for the price of salt. The devices are typically distributed by Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) who purchase them from the proceeds of contributions from their donors. In this way the cost of the device itself is not borne by the end user, end users typically living on less than $2 to $4 per day.]
The device is an advancement on one he developed years ago for the military while he was still at MIOX, called the MSR MIOX Purifier.
Both use electrolysis to send a charge across salt-laced water to strip certain electrons and produce a concentrated combination of chlorine and peroxide that provides a disinfectant more powerful than standard chlorine.
But the original device was inappropriate for the developing world because it ran on one-time use camera batteries, which are expensive and not necessarily easy to come by, Herrington said. And MIOX was not particularly interested in advancing the technology since its focus is on larger community and commercial treatment systems, he said.
So with the last of his five kids out of the nest, Herrington said he was able to take his invention and patents and follow a long-suppressed entrepreneurial dream. With the help of family and angel investors, he says, Aqua Research was born.
“The primary focus was on technologies for the developing world,” he said. “Any technology that a family or small community could use. The criteria was it had to be sustainable, in the sense that people didn’t have to keep buying stuff to keep it going. When someone is making $2 a day in the developing world, they won’t continue doing something if they have to keep spending money on it. This technology lends itself to saving a lot of lives for much less.”
The device runs on a cell phone battery that can be recharged with a USB plug or via small solar cells and works well with the water collecting urns commonly distributed to remote villages by aid organizations, Herrington said. Those 5-gallon urns generally come with instructions to add one cap of chlorine if the water looks clean, two if its looks dirty, he said.
“Many of these have been given away,” he said. “But studies show people won’t keep going back and buying bleach.”
Salt, he said, is cheap and easy to find in just about any corner of the earth. And with H2Go, he said, you simply set the device for 1, 2, 5, 10 or 20 liters and it will make exactly enough solution to purify that much water.
Getting the device to people in need has been a longer road than imagined, however, Herrington says.
“You don’t just go start giving people water treatment technology without knowing it’s safe,” he said. “You’ve got to go through all these processes, studies. It takes time and money. Then you have to switch your brain over to marketing and sales. …. Then you have to get distribution agreements, and you make mistakes on those. What’s the right strategy for NGOs? A lot of them are working off donations. Here we have a technology that fits their mission, but how do we integrate this technology into their programs?
“It’s taken six years so far,” he said. “I go back and look at early sales projections, and laugh at them. Boy was I optimistic. But we just keep plugging away, and finally this stuff is beginning to come to fruition and we’re hopeful that this is the year it is really going to take off.”
He already has a strong believer in Horan, who said his group has used the device in more than 15 countries, including after the earthquake in Nepal and a cholera outbreak in Haiti. And Horan said he is now working with Herrington to develop a second system that is slightly larger to aid its efforts in community development.
“There is no one size fits all in the safe water business,” he said. “You’ve got certain devices and equipment that work great in disaster relief but not in community development. We need a smorgasbord…of solutions. And Rodney is an amazing guy. I’ve been involved in water for a while. I’ve met a lot of smart scientists, but they are usually on FM and I am on AM. He has a rare gift of having one foot in the world I live in and one foot in the world of science.”