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For Space, For Relief
Jamais Cascio, 22 Mar 05

Just in time for World Water Day, AP reports that a water purification system designed by NASA for long-term space flights has been licensed by a humanitarian relief group to bring fresh, water to areas in need at a fraction of the cost of shipping in clean water. Designed to be able to turn gray water, urine and even sweat into pure H2O, the system can handle water from wells poisoned by dead animals and contaminated by ocean salt water (such as in post-tsunami South East Asia). The humanitarian group, Concern for Kids, is set to start production next month, and plans to send 13 mobile water purification systems to Iraq and 12 to South East Asia by this fall.

The AP report was fairly light on details, but a bit of searching around the NASA's website dug up more information. NASA's Water Recovery System (WRS) comprises a urine processing device and a refrigerator-sized system called the Water Processor Assembly (WPA), produced in coordination with Hamilton Sundstrand Space Systems International. The WPA can produce 35 gallons of fresh water every day; the device itself weighs nearly three-quarters of a ton, and requires over 900 watts of power to operate. A 2003 page describes some of the work going into the development of advanced water recovery technology; primary processing uses both chemical and biological methods of treating water.

The two advantages of this system for relief efforts appear to be its relatively compact size and its relatively low cost. The AP report claims the system runs $29,000 in equipment costs plus 3 cents/gallon, presumably for materials, as compared to nearly $400,000 for a stationary setup. Coupled with a solar/wind+battery system for off-grid power, this could be a perfect system for re-imagined, transformed relief efforts worldwide.

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Another interesting water system (though I don't know the price) is the one which takes water from the air by Air Water.

Posted by: Daniel Johnston on 22 Mar 05

while it's better than nothing i suppose, i have to admit my disappointment at the fairly limited range of inputs this device appears to handle. from the HSSI site:

"capability to produce potable quality water from humidity condensate, reclaimed urine distillate, and waste shower, handwash and oral hygiene waters. Primary treatment is provided by particulate filtration, ion exchange, and carbon sorption. In addition, a high-temperature catalytic oxidation process removes residual organics and kills microorganisms to meet final potable water quality specifications."

i'm not a chemist, but as one might expect this certainly sounds like a system finely tuned to a particular operating range; and designed for the tender proddings of a highly trained (and motivated) operator. none of those inputs comes close to - in my admittedly unqualified opinion - the kinds of nasty water that needs cleaning in many regions of the world. i'd venture it requires some kind of modification just to handle high salinity levels (either that, or NASA's chefs are using way too much salt).

someone tell please me that this is a more capable device than i'm currently guessing it to be.

Posted by: csven on 22 Mar 05

More questions than answers: what are the best sites out there dealing with water from all imaginable sources (dew, plant-sweat and all the other alternatives)?

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 23 Mar 05

The thing that worries me about filtration systems like these, is that they rely on a regular supply of new filters coming from the developed world to the (probably remote) deployment site. If filters stop arriving the thing stops working (or filters are bypassed and effectiveness is reduced).

I read a good book called "Tropical Gangsters" (by Robert Klitgaard) and one of my take-aways was that it is easier to set something up than keep it running.

Posted by: odograph on 23 Mar 05


Posted by: csven on 23 Mar 05

This system would probably have a role in emergency situations, but a solar-powered still would do about the same job for a lot less. Mirrors, plastic sheeting, some tubes and a bucket.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 23 Mar 05

What relation is this water purification system to the system the Soviets developed for Mir?

Posted by: Lloyd on 23 Mar 05



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