The founder of the simulation software company Moldflow has turned his attention from the world of cyber-industry to a more earthy plastics application - an inexpensive irrigation system for poor countries and water-starved regions.
Colin Austin founded Moldflow Pty. Ltd. in Australia in 1978 but has spent considerable time combating poverty and scarce water resources. As a result, Austin has designed an irrigation system using recycled plastic.
The system is in large-scale use in Ethiopia, set up by the humanitarian organization World Vision, but Austin wants to see it used more widely.
He traveled to Detroit in February to the Global Plastics Environmental Conference, where he sought licensees for his technology.
There, he and his Australian company, Intelligent Irrigation Systems in Lilydale, picked up an Environmental Stewardship award from the Society of Plastics Engineers, which sponsored GPEC. Austin received a similar award from SPE in 1997 for a computerized version designed for Australia.
Austin wants to use the money from licensees in the developed world to finance installing the system in poor countries.
``What I'd like to do is almost a Robin Hood-type operation,'' Austin said. ``There are rich countries like the U.S. that can well-afford to have a royalty on this. If I can get some royalty stream coming through from the richer countries, I can afford to put more resources into the poorer countries.''
The system is not difficult to make, he said. It's a blown film process that produces thin, flexible pipes that will deliver water, with plastic valves that are injection molded. The pipes can be made from various grades of polyethylene, including plastic bags that otherwise might be litter, he said.
Austin said he'd like to see the pipe made from recycled materials to make the project self-sufficient, but the Ethiopian demonstration project was manufactured using virgin materials. An Australian company, Visy Plastics Pty Ltd., has made some of the pipe with recycled materials for a smaller demonstration project in that country, he said.
The system is relatively simple - it uses gravity to feed water, and it costs about $500 per hectare to irrigate, which is about one-tenth the cost of traditional irrigation, he said. The small valves in the system automatically shut when a section is full of water, diverting water to the other pipes.
Austin said the system is much more efficient than traditional irrigation. The goal in Ethiopia is to feed 54,000 people in the Likimse region at about $2 a head, he said.
While it's not complicated to manufacture or maintain, Austin said it would require more than business acumen to make it take off in the developed world.
Most water is subsidized by the government in developed countries, which makes it more difficult to make conservation work, particularly in large farming communities, he said.
``The driving force behind this has to come from politics,'' Austin said. ``All the irrigation infrastructure in the U.S. has been provided by the government, so the farmers are paying minimal amounts for water.
``The problem with the marketing is, it's not just conventional marketing, it's a political campaign,'' he said.
Austin can be contacted through his Web site, www.water right.com.au.