CHICAGO — Dean Kamen had an idea about how to bring clean water to the developing world.
Unlike major governmental aid projects for major municipal areas or individual filter programs used by individual families, the Slingshot water purification system his DEKA Research & Development Corp. developed was geared toward use in villages, capable of providing enough daily drinking water for up to 300 people.
The question was, he said during the Industrial Designers Society of America's annual conference in Chicago Aug. 22-24, how to get that technology from DEKA's headquarters in Manchester, N.H., to people in need.
"It isn't just about engineering or design," he said. "How do we get these things to people who need them."
The answer, he said, was not with government or non-governmental organizations, but with a business with an unparalleled global reach.
"Even if remote towns, if you can find any product on sale, you can find Coca-Cola," he said.
DEKA and Coca-Cola Co. are now placing complete purification systems – both the Slingshot and an accompanying Stirling electric generator, also developed by DEKA – in communities in Africa and Latin America.
"Water is the lifeblood of our business and our commitment is to ensure we're doing our part to replenish the water we use and give it back to communities around the world," said Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola in a news release.
Kamen may be best known for creating the Segway scooter, but his inventing history is rooted in healthcare. While in college, he created the first wearable infusion pump and sold his AutoSyringe Inc. to Baxter Healthcare when he was 30 years old. He has gone on from there, with DEKA creating dialysis systems, stents, the iBOT wheelchair and is developing an updated prosthetic arm.
Access to clean water and electricity, Kamen said, is a top health priority globally.
The Slingshot uses vapor compression distillation — with plastics used in hoses, tubes and other key components — to purify water by boiling it, collecting the steam and allowing it to condense into clean water. It can use any source of liquid: rivers, ponds, salt water, even latrines, he said.
The unit requires less electricity than a hair dryer, but it still needs some power source, which rural areas in need of clean water typically lack. So DEKA and Coca-Cola are also using the DEKA-developed Stirling generator, which can be powered by biogases, such as the methane from cow dung.
The systems need to be easy to use if they are going to do any good, Kamen said.
"You've got to make it an easy box with one hose going in and one going out," he said. "It can't require chemicals and filters, and it has to be able to work for years without maintenance."
Coke set up a pilot program for the Slingshot and Stirling units at five schools in Ghana in 2012. The Inter-American Development Bank Group and Africare are also partnering on the project.
In Latin America, the companies will work with the Multilateral Investment Fund.
For the next phase of the project, the groups are going even bigger. DEKA will build the purifiers and generators within a standard 8-foot by 8-foot by 20-foot shipping container that will be easy to ship. The containers can also house a refrigeration unit to house essential medicines such as vaccines.
The first eight of those complete units are being deployed this year, with more to come.