Portable Solution to a Potable Issue
David Maurer, Features Writer at the Daily Progress, provides extensive coverage of the global drinking water crisis and how MadiDrops will be part of the solution. Read the story here or on-line at the Daily Progress.
Since March 7, 1825, when the first classes convened at the University of Virginia, the august institution has had a positive impact on innumerable students.
Thomas Jefferson’s masterwork is now on the threshold of positively affecting the lives of potentially billions of people worldwide. Optimism that an age-old bane of humanity soon may be greatly diminished is being generated by a gray tablet slightly bigger than a Milano cookie. Called a MadiDrop, the porous, biodegradable ceramic tablet is designed to release silver ions that will disinfect water. One tablet can be reused continuously for six months, potentially purifying about 500 gallons of water.
“We really think the MadiDrop is a disruptive technology, meaning there’s nothing quite like it on the market today,” said James Smith, a UVA civil and environmental engineer who led the effort in developing and testing the water disinfectant.
“The idea is that you place the MadiDrop in a water storage container with two and a half gallons of water before you go to bed at night. When you get up the next morning, the water will be safe to drink. What happens is that the water permeates the tablet and causes the release of silver ions. Silver ions are very effective at disinfecting water-borne pathogens such as vibrio cholera, E. coli, giardia [lamblia] or cryptosporidium.”
Smith explained that silver has great antimicrobial properties. It’s believed that as far back as the Roman Empire, the wealthy used silver receptacles for storing water in order to make it safer.
The MadiDrop is something of a cousin to a ceramic water filtration unit that’s shaped like a flower pot and is about the size of a standard bucket. The device works well, but it has drawbacks. “We didn’t invent the pot-shaped filter technology,” Smith said. “That was done by a lot of different people, during a long period of time. What we did was demonstrate that it worked. We did field and laboratory testing, as well as a human-health study. We found that it worked so well that we created our own ceramic filter factory in South Africa through our organization PureMadi, and we’re now working on creating a second factory there. With all the work I did with that filter, I also saw some problems. The filters work great, but they’re big, heavy, fragile and cost about $30 a filter. That’s a lot of money for people in a developing-world setting.”
Another downside is that it’s not cost effective to ship the filters long distances. This got Smith thinking about some kind of a ceramic medium, which led to the creation of the MadiDrop.
‘We’ve got something here’
“Madi” is the Tshivenda South African word for water. When Smith tried to interest a couple of his doctoral students in his idea, he failed to get a taker. Perhaps the concept seemed too good to believe. That was the response of one judge who listened to a presentation of early data on the MadiDrop during an annual UVa Entrepreneurship Cup competition. The judge bluntly said he didn’t believe what he was hearing, and the cup went elsewhere. Since then, two doctoral students have completed their dissertations based on the technology, and field data from Tanzania and South Africa have verified that the claims are true.
When David Dusseau, the CEO of MadiDrop PBC, recently met Smith in his office in Thornton Hall, he had exciting news. “I just heard back from a group on the Amazon River in Columbia that we sent 25 units to,” Dusseau told Smith and a visitor. “They said the MadiDrop is working phenomenally well. They’re so impressed and blown away by the technology, and the simplicity of use. It works fabulously.”
In April, Smith was the co-recipient of the 2015 Edlich-Henderson Innovator of the Year Award, presented by UVa’s Licensing & Ventures Group. Multiple science fair awards that his son, Matthew, won about four years ago reinforced his growing belief that he was onto something big.
“My son was in the MESA Program at Albemarle High School and was required to do a science project,” Smith said. “One day he said, ‘Hey, Dad, this thing you’ve been talking about, the tablet in the water — I’d like to try that.’ So he came over to my lab here at UVa, and we did preliminary experiments. And then I actually did get one of my doctoral students interested, and she continued to work with him during the semester. Matthew then went to the Piedmont Regional Science Fair, and they kept calling him up to accept different awards, and he ended up being named the grand champion. The idea had a remarkable resonance with the judges, and that’s when we started to say, ‘Boy, we’ve got something here. This is an exciting thing.’”
Most Americans are blessed with safe, reliable drinking water. But elsewhere in the world, this vital-as-air liquid can be iffy at best and deadly at worst. “One of the things I discovered in getting involved with this was an understanding of the water issue globally, and how big and overwhelming it is,” Dusseau said. “Two to three billion people on the planet regularly drink contaminated water. And 75 percent of the populations of Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean, regularly suffer from dehydration and dysentery as a result of contaminated water. And 80 percent of the incidences of diseases recorded in the world are all around water-related illness.”
“So this is a massive global problem. The MadiDrop is an opportunity to bring something to the market to address a problem that has been around for a long time, and a problem that is getting worse.”
It’s believed that about 2 million children die every year because of water-borne pathogenic infections. Smith said beyond the death toll, the global health burden of growth stunting and cognitive impairment of children by water-borne pathogens is well known and documented.
It’s also well known that hallmarks of many revolutionary discoveries are simplicity and elegance. Outwardly, at least, the MadiDrop qualifies for both, even though the proprietary method of infusing ceramic tablets with microscopic amounts of silver is anything but simple.
Making it a reality
The simplicity comes into play via the usage of the tablet. The elegance can be seen in its stone-like structure, and its low cost is yet another compelling feature. “The MadiDrop is easy to use, but it’s also amazingly cheap,” Smith said. “We haven’t set the final pricing, but it’s going to be between $5 and $10 per tablet. Another thing about MadiDrop is the shelf life. A bottle of chlorine has about a 30-day shelf life, after which you can’t use it, because it begins to lose its effectiveness. We have MadiDrop tablets that have been sitting in a drawer in my lab for three years, and if I dropped one of them into a water container today, it would go back working just as it did three years ago.”
A manufacturing facility to make MadiDrop is being readied on the southern outskirts of Charlottesville. Production is expected to begin early next month, with the first shipment going out in January. The near-term objective is to produce about 5,000 units a month. Ultimately, this number is expected to level out somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 units a month.
The tablets will go first to the people who need them the most. When this demand is satisfied, the MadiDrop likely will be obtainable on the commercial market by hikers, campers and the military and for use in emergencies.
“The problem is getting these technologies to people in the developing world,” Smith said. “You’re never going to get centralized water treatment to everybody in the world, because countries don’t have the revenue to support that. But if we can decentralize our approach, and let people treat their water right before they drink it, that’s what the World Health Organization feels is one of the most plausible solutions.”
“As cheap as the MadiDrop is, people who are making a dollar or two a day probably won’t be able to afford it. But the way we can get it to them is through aid agencies like the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Relief Services. These organizations buy huge amounts of these types of point-of-use technologies, and they already have distribution channels in place.”
The PBC that follows the MadiDrop name stands for public benefit corporation. That means that the focus of the company isn’t strictly on making a profit. “We have a purpose-driven element to the business just like a nonprofit does,” Dusseau said. “And that is to develop, produce and distribute water purification and water treatment technologies that improve health and the quality of life. That mission drives what we do. We donate 50 percent of adjusted net profits back out to water relief efforts. We’re a socially responsible organization focused on having as much of a positive impact on what we’re doing as we possibly can. It has been a little bit of a unique equation for investors, because it’s not your traditional straightforward for-profit entity. There is a balance between that profitability of the organization and its for-public-good mission.”
Unlike some water purification methods, like iodine tablets, MadiDrop does not change the taste of the water. The downsides are that the MadiDrop does not remove turbidity from the water, and while it does have a disinfectant effect on viruses, it’s not as good as chlorine for doing this.
But many people in the developing world routinely clarify their drinking water by passing it through pieces of folded fabric to capture suspended particulates that make water look cloudy. And having used the MadiDrop, they can be certain that 99.9 percent of the infectious water-borne bacteria has been removed as well.
“I’m excited that we’re doing this right here in Charlottesville,” Smith said. “Because the MadiDrop is so small and durable we can ship it out all over the world, and it won’t be cost prohibitive to do that. When we look to the future, one of the things that is going to be really important is developing water supplies that are resilient. Climate change is going to multiply the problem. ‘
“These simple, low-cost technologies to purify water are going to be critical in the coming decades.”
David A. Maurer can be reached at email@example.com or (434) 978-7244.