TCS Daily

Just Add Water

By Jay Bryant - July 31, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week, President Bush announced that the water problem in Iraq would be alleviated in two months. Given the complexity of the task, that wouldn't be a bad performance time utilizing the best 20th century technology.


This is, however, the 21st century, and an astonishing new technology is available that could solve the problem as quickly as a few planeloads of the product -- a small bag with a little magic powder in it -- could get from here to there.


In civil war-plagued Monrovia, Liberia, two days before Bush spoke, the water supply was taken out in a mortar attack, threatening a cholera epidemic. Bodies are reported to be piling up outside the U.S. Embassy. We may be sending troops there soon, and if so, one of the major concerns of logistics planners will be how to supply them with safe potable fluids.


After all, the old logistics joke goes, you can't just give them dehydrated H20 and instructions to just add water.


Actually, you can, sort of, and moreover, the water you add can be the dirtiest, most contaminated bilge imaginable. It can be full of viruses, bacteria, poisons, you name it.


The small bag is called a HydroPack and it's manufactured by a company called Hydration Technologies, Inc. in Albany, Oregon. It requires no power, has no mechanical parts, and uses no purifying chemicals. It's a membrane that employs an advanced forward osmosis technique to remove bacteria, viruses, chemical poisons and other nasty stuff. It won't clog up, either, even if it's tossed into really muddy water, and making it work is so simple a child can do it.


Once the bag fills up, you simply sip the drinking tube and quench your thirst from a two-liter supply of a clean and safe Gatorade-like nutrient drink formulated to replace critical electrolytes lost during strenuous activity, including combat duty.


The patented membrane has pores that measure only about 3 to 5 angstroms in diameter (an angstrom is equal to one ten-billionth of a meter.) The smallest bacterium is about 2,000 angstroms wide, so it can't get inside; even the tiniest virus is at least 50 angstroms, making it ten times too large to pass through the forward osmosis action of the HydroPack, even if it says "open sesame."


Let's imagine that we magnified everything so that the pores were the size of a dime. On that scale, a single bacterium is the size of a two-car garage. In the testing process for the product, HTI placed it into a vat of E. Coli bacteria (up to a hundred million per milliliter) for 24 hours. There were zero E. Coli in the solution inside the membrane.


Forward osmosis is different from reverse osmosis, which uses hydraulic pressure to force liquid through a membrane. That requires a piece of machinery and a power source. With forward osmosis, you have no moving parts, and the pressure is what is called osmotic potential, which simply takes advantage of the natural tendency of any two substances to want to mix together when placed in contact. The nutrient mixture inside the bag and the water outside the bag want to mix, and so they do, but the mixing can only take place inside the bag because the nutrient particles are too big to get out. And because the contaminants in the water are also too big, they can't get in.


HTI also makes a variation of the product that fits into a CamelBak, the backpack water supply carried by many troops in Iraq. As it is now, a soldier has to put clean potable water in the CamelBak, but with the HTI unit included, he or she can fill up right out of the Tigris without a worry. And a soldier in Liberia could fill up out of a cholera-laden mud hole.


Best of all, the military knows the product works -- the original technology was developed through a DOD-funded project under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).


And just as our troops could use a product like the HydroPack, the people they are fighting to liberate may need it even more. While coalition troops were still racing toward Baghdad, the International Medical Corps was already moving its life-saving facilities into Iraq, and the global humanitarian organization has also been active in the West African crisis. In Iraq, it reported that over 50 percent of its patients in June were hospitalized due to bad water. HTI and IMC have put in a proposal to the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance to supply six hospitals and 33 clinics in Iraq with clean water for use as oral rehydration therapy.


Except for breathable air, potable drinking water is the number one survival need for every human being. For many of those who don't have it, help is on the way -- or at least can be, if the makers of public policy don't throw up roadblocks.


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