KGOU

PureMadi Founder Jim Smith Ready To Transform The Future Of Water Purification

Nov 18, 2016

Since 2000, access to safe and reliable drinking water has catapulted into public awareness thanks to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Amidst a proliferation of non-governmental organizations, charities and UN initiatives, the search for truly sustainable solutions to water access and cleanliness has intensified.

University of Virginia civil and environmental engineer Jim Smith may have found a solution.

Smith, a 2015 Edlich-Henderson Innovator of the Year Award winner, is also the founder of PureMadi, an initiative responsible for the creation of two water filter factories in South Africa. The filters PureMadi produces are not only innovative in design, but also incredibly simple to use.

“The idea here is that you can take mostly local materials--clay, water and sawdust, which is normally a waste material,” Smith told KGOU’s World Views. "When you press it, it comes out shaped like a big pot. After that, the next step is you put it in a wood fire kiln. And a kiln is just a high-temperature oven, so it heats up these clay pots to about 900 degrees Celsius … The clay hardens into a ceramic, and the sawdust combusts. So that leaves behind void space that water can then percolate through."

The filters rely on microscopic technology to combat waterborne bacteria that kill over 7 million children worldwide each year.

A worker paints silver nanoparticles onto the clay pots to create a water filtration system.
Credit Jim Smith / PureMadi

“The other innovation, after [the filter] comes out of the kiln and cools down-- We use a paintbrush, and just paint on a suspension of water that has silver nanoparticles in it. That's our one non-local material, the nanoparticles. These are little metallic pieces of silver that are about 15-20 nanometers in diameter, and they're so small they stay suspended in water,” Smith said. “You can pour water in, and it percolates through the filter, and it removes any suspended particulates by physical filtration. The silver that we put in is an effective antimicrobial agent, so it disinfects the water and kills all the harmful microorganisms that can make people sick.”

Before bringing the filter project to South Africa, Smith and his team were able to conduct landmark research proving the filters’ effectiveness.

“What we did was enroll 100 people that were HIV positive … When you're HIV positive, your immune system is weakened, so you're more susceptible to gastrointestinal infections. 50 of them got filters. The other 50 kept doing what they normally did. What we found was that there was a significant improvement in their health, the group that had the filters,” Smith said. “Based on that, we said, this really works. Let's create our own organization, which we call PureMadi. We can teach people in South Africa how to make and sell these filters.”

While Smith is enthusiastic about the project’s results, he also has taken steps to ensure its sustainability.

“We're trying to stay away from a model where a local NGO comes in and says, ‘we want to buy a thousand filters and give it to everybody in our community.’ Because a lot of times, if it's given away, it's not valued. If it's given away without the proper education, it's even less valued,” Smith said. “One of the things that's key in South Africa is the use of influencers. Influencers are things like schools, health clinics, and also churches … We're also providing education to the children about why these filters are important. At the same time, we're using the schools as a source to sell filters to the families. The hypothesis is, if the kids come home and say these filters are great, why don't we have one at home, then that is an incentive for the parents to purchase a filter. I think that education has to go hand in hand with the filter use.”

In the face of growing uncertainty surrounding climate change and resource distribution, Smith is certain that water access is a problem that will remain relevant into the foreseeable future.

“A very common buzzword these days is ‘resilient.’ We need to develop resilient water systems that can still perform at a high level in the face of things like climate change,” Smith said. “So I think that's going to be one of our biggest challenges in the next few decades, is planning for those changes, which are going to happen in the coming decades.”

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INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On entering the field of water and development

I became really interested in the influence of family members. I had an older brother who was a civil engineer and got me excited about water issues. But I really did a lot of work on groundwater initially, and fluid flow and porous media and cleaning up groundwater. It wasn't until maybe about 12 years ago or so that I really started to see the bigger problem of global water quality. We've got problems in the United States, but I think they pale in comparison to some of the water issues in the developing world.

On the future of water systems in the developing world

If you look at the Millennium Development Goals associated with water, we have made progress with providing access to quality water to more people. But obviously, there are still huge numbers of people, probably over a billion people, that are not getting safe water … We understand we need simple, low-cost, affordable technologies, but at the same time, we have this thing called global warming that's hanging over our heads. In places like South Africa, where we work in the Limpopo province, the forecast is that in another 30 or 40 years, they're going to see significantly less rainfall. There's going to be less water available. Things like malaria--the prevalence is going to increase. Things like cyanotoxins from cyanobacterias-- Temperatures rise, there's going to be a more favorable environment, they're going to grow and produce more toxins that are in surface waters. All these problems, we have to start thinking about now, and addressing them.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Jim Smith, welcome to World Views.

JIM SMITH: Thank you very much. I appreciate you having me.

GRILLOT: Well, Jim, you obviously have a background in civil engineering, and have worked long and hard on issues involving water and sanitation. Can you tell us a little bit about how, as an engineer, you got into this area and obviously started working in areas to focus on sustainable water access?

SMITH: Sure. You know, I think the issue of water-- I became really interested in the influence of family members. I had an older brother who was a civil engineer and got me excited about water issues. But I really did a lot of work on groundwater initially, and fluid flow and porous media and cleaning up groundwater. It wasn't until maybe about 12 years ago or so that I really started to see the bigger problem of global water quality. We've got problems in the United States, but I think they pale in comparison to some of the water issues in the developing world. And that really got me interested in that topic, and really, I had a transition. I did a sabbatical at Princeton University and developed a course called "Water for the World." As part of that course development, I started to really learn myself about many of the developing world's water problems. That was really a revelation for me, and that's really changed my career focus for the last decade or so.

GRILLOT: So where in particular have you been engaging in this kind of work, and what are some of the specific lessons you've learned about those areas?

SMITH: Sure. So probably one of my first experiences was in the Colonia, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Mainly, it was because we were considering doing some work there on water. I was taken there by some colleagues. It was an eye opening experience. You know, you cross the river from El Paso into Juarez, and it's just like night and day. My first more in-depth experience was a project with ceramic water filters in a community called San Mateo Ixtatan in the Guatemalan highlands. Really a very isolated community, and that's why they have problems. They're so geographically isolated. We began investigating the use of a technology called silver ceramic filters, that could be made locally in the community, and we could introduce them, and it could be a source of local revenue to the community members. That really sort of launched a path of research that I've been on for the last eight or nine years now.

GRILLOT: So tell us a little bit about this ceramic water filter, how that works. What's the technology? You said you can build them locally, so I would presume that it's pretty simple technology if you're taking them into developing areas. How does that work, exactly?

SMITH: It's really remarkable, and it's not something I invented. I think our claim to fame is we showed it worked. Basically, the idea here is that you can take mostly local materials--clay, water and sawdust, which is normally a waste material, and you mix it together in the proper proportions and it sort of forms a Play-Doh like material. You can mold it. And then you put it in a filter press. A filter press is just a pot shaped, male and female mold. When you press it, it comes out shaped like a big pot. After that, the next step is you put it in a wood fire kiln. And a kiln is just a high-temperature oven, so it heats up these clay pots to about 900 degrees Celsius. A couple things happen. The first thing is the clay hardens into a ceramic, and the sawdust combusts. So that leaves behind void space that water can then percolate through. The other innovation, after it comes out of the kiln and cools down-- We use a paintbrush, and just paint on a suspension of water that has silver nanoparticles in it. That's our one non-local material, the nanoparticles. These are little metallic pieces of silver that are about 15-20 nanometers in diameter, and they're so small they stay suspended in water. So you can take the water and just paint it on the filter. The water gets sucked into the pore space, and these silver nanoparticles presumably lodge in the pore space of the filter. So now we can take this pot shaped filter, put it in a five gallon painter's bucket, and put a spigot on the bottom of the bucket. You can pour water in, and it percolates through the filter, and it removes any suspended particulates by physical filtration. The silver that we put in is an effective antimicrobial agent, so it disinfects the water and kills all the harmful microorganisms that can make people sick. Because it's a pretty simple process--I just described the whole process to you can teach local people how to make these filters, and it can become a source of revenue that will sustain the operation of a filter factory. They can sell the filters in the community. That helps them economically, and it also helps the community with respect to human health.

GRILLOT: This is really fascinating. I'm picturing this in my head as you're describing it, the creation of this pot. I'm still a little fuzzy on how the silver part works, but it's really fascinating, removing particles-- So basically, then, water that is retrieved from some sort of local source, whether it's a river or some sort of well or something, can be poured into this filter. Does it remove everything? Is this a kind of technology you can use-- I guess what I'm getting at is anywhere in the world, depending on what kind of micro-germs or whatever you would find anywhere in the world. I noticed you're also working on this type of technology in South Africa. So you've been working in Central America and South Africa. Is this is kind of a mobile technology that would clean anybody's water?

SMITH: Absolutely. And there are now filter factories all over the world. There's probably about 40 or 50 that are quite active and successful. The two main things that it does are remove turbidity--suspended particles that might make the water look cloudy--and then it removes microbial pathogens, so things like pathogenic E. coli, or chigella TK, or cryptosporidium. And really, in a developing world setting, that is the number one thing we're concerned about. There's about two million children who die every year from repeated gastrointestinal infections from these waterborne pathogens. But it's very much transportable. After the work we did in Guatemala, we demonstrated that the filters performed well. If I can back up-- So, when I first heard about this technology, there was a little bit of data from MIT. MIT studied the size of the pores in these filters, and they found the pores were about 10 microns in size. Well, an E. coli bacteria is one micron in size. So my thought was: There's people teaching this technology to communities. I don't think it works. Nobody knows if this really works. So in the laboratory--that's what got me interested. We showed it worked well in the laboratory. We went to Guatemala where a local community member was making the filters. We tested it in homes, and it was working. The final piece of evidence-- We went to South Africa, and we conducted a human health study. What we did was enroll 100 people that were HIV positive. The reason we did that is when you're HIV positive, your immune system is weakened, so you're more susceptible to gastrointestinal infections. 50 of them got filters. The other 50 kept doing what they normally did. What we found was that there was a significant improvement in their health, the group that had the filters. So we were able to demonstrate a statistically significant improvement in human health. Based on that, we said, this really works. Let's create our own organization, which we call PureMadi. We can teach people in South Africa how to make and sell these filters. So up until this point, there had never been a filter factory in South Africa. In the past couple years now, we've created two factories that are both up and running, and producing lots and lots of filters, so we're very excited about that.

GRILLOT: This is exciting, and I'm just curious how it's maybe connected to some of the other activities that are going on in terms of finding water, having access to that water, delivering water to the filter-- I mean, like you said, this thing goes in a five gallon bucket, so it's very portable. You can take it to your water source. How is it connected to a broader infrastructure, if you will, of water delivery, water access?

SMITH: The reason we focus on this idea-- If you think about here in the United States, we've got these amazing, centralized water treatment plants. They purify the water to a very high level. They send it out in a distribution network, so the water comes right into our homes. It's on 24/7. It's highly regulated. In the developing world, that just doesn't exist in much of the developing world. There are just not the resources to get that any time soon. The idea of the ceramic filters is we're taking away--decentralize--the approach to water treatment. Let people treat their water in their home, right before they drink it. That way, even if they are drinking from a source that's a relatively unsafe source, if they can treat it right before they drink it, they then have safe water. Of course, we still have issues with supply and quantity. That's going to continue to be issues. At least the water that they're drinking and the children are drinking is going to be of a high quality, which is making a lot of progress in these rural communities.

GRILLOT: Well, as you mentioned earlier about teaching people to make these filters and creating the company that you created in South Africa that makes these filters-- I imagine that the educational part of this, perhaps, goes beyond teaching people how to make the filter, but how to use them clearly, but also that they should use them. Is that all connected together as well, that there's an educational component-- again, coming from a technical background, but working with social scientists, anthropologists, government officials, others, to kind of help get the word out, that they need to have better access to clean water, and here is something that can do that for them? And then how to implement this so they are healthier people.

SMITH: Yeah, and that's a great question, and it's one of the big challenges, actually. So, many people don't realize they have bad quality water. The water is clear and it smells okay. They think it's fine. One of the things we're doing-- And we're trying to stay away from a model where a local NGO comes in and says, "we want to buy a thousand filters and give it to everybody in our community." Because a lot of times, if it's given away, it's not valued. If it's given away without the proper education, it's even less valued. So one of the things that's key in South Africa is the use of influencers. Influencers are things like schools, health clinics, and also churches. What we're beginning with PureMadi--we're just getting started, so I can't tell you if it's going to work or not-- What we're working to do is, we're going into schools and we're donating filters for the classrooms and the schools. We're also providing education to the children about why these filters are important. At the same time, we're using the schools as a source to sell filters to the families. The hypothesis is, if the kids come home and say these filters are great, why don't we have one at home, then that is an incentive for the parents to purchase a filter. And some of that revenue can also be recovered by the school, to put back into their educational programs. The same idea with health clinics and churches: the churches are extremely influential. If a pastor understands the value of a product, he can recommend that product to his parishioners, and that can be a very powerful sales influencer. Also, he can provide them with education about the technology. I think that education has to go hand in hand with the filter use.

GRILLOT: Well, given what you've said and what you've seen, what is the prognosis for the future of access to clean water and better sanitation, health, education--all the things we've been talking about. The future of water issues--what are some of the obstacles, other than money, access to a water source-- What do you see as kind of getting in the way of these types of things being successful in the long run?

SMITH: Well, I think in general, we're getting better. Things are improving. If you look at the Millennium Development Goals associated with water, we have made progress with providing access to quality water to more people. But obviously, there are still huge numbers of people, probably over 1 billion people that are not getting safe water. I think the complicating factor, although we're learning a lot-- We understand we need simple, low-cost, affordable technologies, but at the same time, we have this thing called global warming that's hanging over our heads. In places like South Africa, where we work in the Limpopo province, the forecast is that in another 30 or 40 years, they're going to see significantly less rainfall. There's going to be less water available. Things like malaria--the prevalence is going to increase. Things like cyanotoxins from cyanobacterias-- Temperatures rise, there's going to be a more favorable environment, they're going to grow and produce more toxins that are in surface waters. All these problems, we have to start thinking about now, and addressing them. That's sort of-- We're coming up with these ideas. A very common buzzword these days is "resilient." We need to develop resilient water systems that can still perform at a high level in the face of things like climate change. So I think that's going to be one of our biggest challenges in the next few decades, is planning for those changes, which are going to happen in the coming decades.

GRILLOT: So thinking about not just sustainability, but also resilience over the long term.

SMITH: Absolutely.

GRILLOT: Alright, well thank you so much, Jim, for being with us today and telling us about these very important technologies. We really appreciate it.

SMITH: You're welcome. Thank you so much for having me.

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