Solar tea bag takes garbage out of water
by Joseph Gallivan
The coming water crisis — oceans too high, lakes too low — overshadows the current crisis of a billion of the world’s people lacking clean drinking water. A Beaverton startup has a deceptively simple solution to the immediate problem: a device that can clean water with little energy use. Puralytics new solar-powered Lily Pad invention looks like a big nylon teabag, designed to float in ditches and ponds. It removes all the revolting stuff in runoff from roadways — plastics, metals, bacteria, pesticides, petrochemicals, peed-out pharmaceuticals — while just lying there.
“Historically, the solution to pollution has been dilution,” says Mark Owen, CEO of Puralytics. “Get the stuff to a stream or a lake. But we’re getting to the limits of that thinking.”
Puralytics won a $53,000 grant in April to test the Lily Pad and nudge it to becoming a marketable product, courtesy of the Oregon Built Environmental and Sustainable Technologies Center. The state-funded consortium of academic researchers, known as Oregon BEST, aims to develop and nurture clean tech industries. The money is helping Puralytics work with Oregon State University’s Institute for Water and Watersheds to see if the Lily Pad is feasible. The first phase ends this month.
The grant is part of a $1 million round of commercialization grants from Oregon BEST for promising clean technologies. Puralytics’ first product was the Shield, a box that looks like a tower PC being fed water. Inside, LEDs do the work of sunlight, and clean water flows out the other end. The company’s market is not just high-tech manufacturers. Every Starbucks has a water purifier to make sure the coffee tastes the same everywhere. Restaurants and apartment buildings have them, or any business that doesn’t trust the water mains. Puralytics just shipped a unit to the Sands/Venetian Hotel in Macau, China. It’s a pilot program to see whether they can recycle more water in the kitchens of the giant casino. Another is going to a village in Vietnam. It will be a self-serve kiosk where people can pay by cell phone and fill their drinking water container. It has to be foolproof and low maintenance, but the demand is there.
Another product has taken Owen in a different direction. Puralytics makes a three-liter plastic bag with a mini version of the mesh inside the Lily Pad. Filled with water and placed in the sun for three hours, the Solar Bag creates clean drinking water out of some dodgy stuff. Microbes and parasites die, too; their cell walls are torn apart. Owen now sells the Solar Bag in more than 50 countries, usually to nonprofits, foreign governments and faith-based organizations, such as the International School of Beaverton’s trial in Yucatan, Mexico, or Good Samaritan Ministries in Malawi, Africa. Campers and backpackers also buy the Solar Bags, which retail for about $75. Nonprofits, known abroad as nongovernmental organizations, qualify for a discounted price.
“Unlike here, people in the developing world sterilize their drinking water at the faucet,” Owen says. “The work of digging wells is being done by NGOs and faith-based organizations.”
He likens this to distributed computer systems, how we all rely on smart devices in our pockets instead of our grandfather’s mainframes. “It became a distributed solution once the mind-set changed,” Owens says, suggesting the same mind shift is due with water. In the United States, the Solar Bag is being discovered by backpackers. Owen used his in the Grand Canyon this year when the park service’s water main went down. His peers used iodine. Owen’s backers for Puralytics have been classed as “LOHAS,” or people aspiring to Lifestyles of the Healthy and Sustainable. “It’s impact investing,” he says. “People are looking for the triple bottom line: financial return, good for the environment, and good for people.
“The world doesn’t have great solutions for taking contaminants out of the environment,” Owen says. “Or even in our bodies. You can measure pesticides in our blood, and over time that’s not sustainable for the health of the planet. We can’t solve all problems, but we can solve how pesticides get into water, and treat contaminants at trace levels. That’s how I see us making a contribution to the world.”