When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines earlier this month, it leveled entire neighborhoods and left thousands of people dead, missing or displaced.
Even now that the initial devastation has passed, many Filipinos lack access to the most basic necessities of life: food, shelter, and clean water. Thanks to his invention of an innovative ceramic water filter and his foundation Water4Life, Associate Scientist Alex Vrinzen is fighting to bring aid where it is most needed.
In 2002, as part of its centenary celebrations, DSM launched the “Dream Action Awards” initiative, which inspired DSM employees from around the world to propose new ideas for innovations that would help make the world abettor place. One of the winning ideas, selected from a total of more than 700proposals, was a simple, inexpensive drinking straw containing a ceramic ultrafiltration membrane. The membrane needed just a slight pressure differential to let through clean water, free of dangerous bacteria and parasites. The membrane experts behind this idea were Paul Vergossen and Alex Vrinzen of DSM Research, Geleen (Netherlands) – and with their efforts, the technology behind Water4Life was born.
A water source on the island of Sumba, in Indonesia
The gravity purifier
Today, the filter from that drinking straw has been developed into a consumer water filtration system that is affordable, safe, and locally producible. Called a “gravity purifier”, the system consists of two reservoirs placed one on top of the other and linked by intelligent membrane technology. The principle behind the system has been known for some 170 years: contaminated source water is poured into the top reservoir, and the force of gravity draws it gradually through two porous “filter candles” into the reservoir below. The average flow rate of the water is between one and three liters per hour, and the water filtered in this way is free of roughly 99.9999% of bacteria. What’s more, the filter candles at the heart of the system can actually release beneficial micro-minerals into the water, such as copper and zinc.
A water filtration system like this one can be made for just six euros
Protecting vulnerable populations
“Approximately one billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water,” says Alex, “and some 5,000 children die every day as a result of consuming unsafe water. A water filter like the gravity purifier, which doesn’t require electricity and can be produced for less than 10 euro per unit, will produce enough clean, safe water for a family of five. What’s more, we know that, after disasters such as the typhoon in the Philippines, populations run an elevated risk of water-borne diseases and epidemics, including cholera, typhoid and dysentery. In those situations, by securing access to clean water with systems such as the gravity purifier, we can potentially save many people’s lives.”
That’s where Water4Life foundation comes in. Launched in 2004,the foundation strives to promote the use of its water purifier and to provide knowledge and experience in the area of safe drinking water to people in developing nations around the world.
Passionate about purifying water
Alex works full time at his job as an Associate Scientist for DSM – but he also works full time on his “hobby” as President of the Water4Lifefoundation. “I’m passionate about purifying water,” he explains. “I work 40hours a week at DSM, and afterwards I frequently end up putting in just as many hours with Water4Life. It may seem strange to some people that I spend so much time and energy on this, but I strongly believe that we need to find ways of reaching people at the base of the pyramid with this kind of life-changing technology and expertise. I have more than 11 years of experience in the area of filtration and clean water, and I’ve seen first-hand – after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example – the difference we can make. Today, we have produced two million water filtration systems in India, and our foundation continues to work with local entrepreneurs to promote new advances in education and technology.”
Alex Vrinzen [left] visiting Nairobi, Kenya, with Water4Life
Do you want to help?
In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, Water4Life is donating water filtration systems to people in need in the Philippines. At the same time, the foundation is sponsoring an educational program on sanitation and hygiene created specifically for – and by – local inhabitants. The knowledge spread through this program (about potential routes of infection, for example, and sources of contamination) can help prevent disease and enables people to get the best use out of their water filtration systems.
If you are interested in contributing in other ways, contact Alex Vrinzen at firstname.lastname@example.org