Start-Ups - WaterHealth International Inc.
Disinfecting the World's Water
Amidst Napa's rolling hills and vineyards sits WaterHealth International, Inc. (WHI). Since 1996, WHI has provided state-of-the-art water treatment systems and services to a worldwide market. WaterHealth's technology was cited in U.S. News and World Report's 1997 list of "20 Ways to Save the World." In 1999, Discover Magazine hailed the technology as one of the "Best of Decade" inventions. Tralance Addy, WHI's President and CEO, says the company has dedicated itself to becoming "the leading innovator in the delivery of affordable water to both affluent and non-affluent communities." This ambitious and laudable goal has been achieved by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's UV Waterworks (UVW) technology, a compact, low-maintenance device that uses ultraviolet (UV) light to disinfect drinking water efficiently and economically.
A PRESSING ISSUE
In 1993, a mutant strain of cholera ravaged many communities in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand. No vaccines were available to fight this "Bengal Cholera," and thousands were killed by the outbreak. This tragedy prompted Ashok Gadgil, of Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD), to initiate research and development of a drinking water disinfection system. During the five years Gadgil spent working for a nonprofit organization in India, he became acutely aware of the widespread problems with drinking water and grew particularly interested in disinfection mechanisms that utilized UV light.
Living in the United States, it is difficult to recognize the severe magnitude of issues surrounding impure drinking water. In developing countries, contaminated water is a primary cause of death and illness, killing 5 million people and bringing disease to an additional 3.3 billion per year. A child dies from a water-related illness every eight seconds. The purified, piped water that many of us take for granted is an unknown luxury throughout the third world. On average, families have to spend three hours each day to fetch and prepare their drinking water. In India, water contamination is especially prevalent during monsoon season, when heavy rainfall mixes sewage and other contaminants with water used for human consumption.
AN ASTONISHING DISCOVERY
Initial design efforts with UV produced extraordinary results. Working with Derek Yegian, then a mechanical engineering graduate student and now a researcher in Berkeley Lab's Life Sciences Division, Gadgil found that UV light could disinfect one ton of water for five cents. Amazed that this technology, with its astonishing capabilities, had not been developed in the past, the scientists searched for what Gadgil calls a "fatal flaw". None could be found.
A working model was developed and taken to India for field testing in 1994. Feedback from the tests suggested ways of improving the technology. In 1995, Gadgil was approached by Edas Kazakevicius, a physics student from Lithuania who was interested in working with Gadgil on the UVW project. With Kazakevicius' assistance, a revised prototype was built and lab-tested in late 1995. The UV-disinfecting device was then ready to move into the developing world where it was needed. Berkeley Lab's Technology Transfer Department was also instrumental at this stage. The Department secured funds from the Department of Energy's Office of Science to develop the technology to a stage in which it was licensable.
Viviana Wolinsky, the Licensing Manager at Berkeley Lab, states that "Gadgil worked with the Technology Transfer Department to devise a strategy for a technology that everyone realized had the potential to offer significant, widespread social benefit. To foster the broadest distribution of the technology, Berkeley Lab decided to patent and license it." WHI, the winning bidder in the selection process, was one of dozens of companies interested in licensing the UVW technology. Tralance Addy states that "the company was founded to invest in businesses that aid society." WHI's founder had previously worked in New Guinea, an experience that heightened his interest in the issue of water contamination. This interest, combined with the immense potential of the UVW technology, prompted the company to place its sole focus on water disinfection. Today, Ashok Gadgil works at both Berkeley Lab and WaterHealth, serving as WHI's Chief Technology Officer and Vice President of Research and Development.
HOW UVW WORKS
Using only 60 Watts of electricity, a single UVW unit provides safe drinking water for approximately 2000 people. Gravity powers the flow of water into the UV chamber, deactivating 99.995% of contaminating bacteria and viruses. The device contains a germicidal UV lamp, which disables the DNA of microorganisms in the water. Four gallons of water are disinfected each minute. UVW employs an ultraviolet dosage three times higher than what is required. Though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Science Foundation (NSF) have designated 40 mJ/cm2 as a suitable UV dose, UVW provides over 120 mJ/cm2. As Gadgil states, WaterHealth "does not want a device that works on the margin." With this significant margin of safety, communities can rest assured that their drinking water has been adequately purified, even when forced to rely on a water supply with a high contaminant load.
UVW is designed to be able to disinfect effluent water as contaminated as that coming from an average United States municipal sewage plant. The device has a wide spectrum of uses, from homes, schools, and hospitals in third-world countries to residences that rely on well water in more affluent nations. Very little maintenance is required, and the unit aims to be completely failsafe. If any type of malfunction occurs, an electrical valve shuts down the entry port to the device, allowing no water to enter. The UVW technology offers all of these benefits at an affordable cost for developing countries. The Officers of National Drinking Water Mission in India have determined that 20 cents per person per year is affordable for drinking water disinfection. The UV Waterworks technology beats this price without sacrificing quality.
THE ULTIMATE REWARD
At WHI, the UVW device is considered mature and many new technologies are under development. Currently, WaterHealth is focused on raising funds to further marketing efforts, increase implementation of the UV Waterworks technology, and launch several new products currently in its R&D pipeline.
A massive stack of awards and certificates overflow from the walls to shelves in Gadgil's office. In March of 2001, UV Waterworks became the only point-of-entry and UV Class A disinfection system to be certified by the State of California Department of Health Services (DHS). This recent certification is perhaps the technology's most significant accolade, as the California DHS is known to set a "gold standard" for environmental regulations.
WaterHealth is truly making an impact on the world at large. Though awards won by the technology provide added recognition, the biggest reward of all is the lives that are saved and the illnesses that are prevented by providing clean drinking water to those in need.