SEATTLE, Washington — Access to clean and safe food and water is something that the developed world often takes for granted. However, in many countries, access to safe food and water is limited, leading to peril for those who live there. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 10 people get sick and 420,000 people die every year from contaminated food. Meanwhile, 485,000 people die from diarrhea-related diseases as a result of contaminated water. At least 785 million people do not have access to basic drinking water. Thankfully, scientists at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering are working on innovative methods that can one day soon be used for food and water decontamination in developing countries.
Currently, the main method of decontaminating water in developing countries is to use filter systems coupled with solar or chemical methods to remove sediments, chemical contaminants and pathogens from water. Systems such as the water-purifying LifeStraw and the Cyclocean bicycle currently use filtration to remove contaminants from water. Other systems such as Life Sack and Solarball harness the power of the sun to purify water. Chemical treatments with chemicals such as iodine, ozone and chlorine are also often used.
While these systems are often effective, they also often have long-term problems when dealing with water that has high levels of natural sediments. Filters often become clogged when dealing with muddy or turbid water. Chemicals used to purify water often react with the sediments and become inert, reducing their effectiveness, according to Richard Novak, Ph.D. and Wyss’ senior staff engineer in an interview with The Borgen Project.
AquaPulse: Purifying Water with Electricity
The Wyss Institute’s solution to this problem is an innovative device that goes by the name of AquaPulse. AquaPulse uses electricity to kill pathogens in water, leaving the water free of any disease. Although the system does not remove sediments, in combination with traditional filtration systems, it can provide effective water purification very quickly. The Institute’s final goal is to process 1 liter of water per minute using AquaPulse.
The AquaPulse cartridge is about the size of a softball. Richard Novak says that the portability of AquaPulse will make it very accessible in developing countries as well as in disaster relief situations where quick and easy water purification is needed. Novak says that the Wyss Institute is working on a system for AquaPulse that uses grid power and one that would use a battery, which could potentially be recharged using solar power. He says that it is the Institute’s goal for an AquaPulse cartridge to be able to generate 100 to 200 liters of clean water on a single charge. Novak hopes that AquaPulse should be “out of Harvard within the next year” and be available for general use a few years after that.
RAPID: Finding Contamination in Seconds
Testing for food contamination from bacteria and other microorganisms is usually performed using methods pioneered by French scientist Louis Pasteur. In his method, a sample of the suspected contaminated food is allowed to develop in a Petri dish in order to see what microorganisms may be present. Sometimes this is also performed using PCR, a method that tries to detect nucleic acids that are present in harmful bacteria. These methods, however, take anywhere from a day to a week to return any results. By that time, the food may have already expired or acquired a new contaminant.
RAPID, a new system from the Wyss Institute, takes a different approach. It uses a protein that Wyss Institute Lead Senior Staff Scientist Dr. Michael Super describes as a “general pathogen-capturing protein.” This protein binds to the sugars in microbes in order to quickly grab a sample from potentially tainted food to test for harmful pathogens. Due to its ability to quickly collect samples, RAPID can get results in minutes, allowing foods to test quickly and effectively to be screened for contaminants. Dr. Super also mentioned the possibility of using RAPID to decontaminate water in conjunction with AquaPulse.
Dr. Super estimates that RAPID will be available in approximately five years. Right now, the project’s main setback is the difficulty of using RAPID in non-sterile environments. At the moment, the protein will pick up general contamination from the environment and, thus, not provide an accurate result. However, once RAPID has been developed far enough to be released, it will be an invaluable tool in improving food safety in developing countries.
Food and water decontamination are important to the public health of any country. These new innovations will help developing countries improve standards of food and water decontamination, reducing the number of people who get sick or die unnecessarily from food or water-borne illness. These technologies will also benefit victims of natural disasters worldwide. Overall, they show great promise for the future of clean food and water.
– Kelton Holsen