Eccentric Scientist Takes on Dirty Water with Fresh Solution
An Eccentric Journey To A Novel Solution
My Brita filter bottle is a close companion that never leaves my side. While my companion continuously quenches my thirst on hot summer days after jogs on the National Mall, other people around the globe are less fortunate when it comes to access to clean water.
Water can be both a savior and a silent assailant. We cannot go three days without it. But if we drink contaminated water we can get sick, or even die. Eighty percent of all sickness and disease worldwide is related to contaminated water. Dirty water has caused more deaths than war, malaria, AIDS and traffic accidents combined. My growing awareness of this global threat is why my team visited Jaquelin Spong, who says she may have found a unique solution.
As our car pulled up to Spong’s rural home around Halloween, what looked like an alien-landing site featuring an old satellite dish on the front lawn suggested that her inventiveness extended well beyond her newest invention. Spong is a patent agent for the company IP Solutions, Inc., but she is also a character. Although I had only come to discuss her Fresnel Water Purifier, by the time I left I had played in a drum circle, fed some sheep and almost climbed a homemade rock wall. This pleasantly eccentric morning gave me faith in Spong’s creation.
By the time we wake up to begin our morning routine, women and children in countries like Guatemala have already set out on a three-to-four hour trek across treacherous terrain in search of water, facing adverse consequences. While we bend our arms to brush our teeth with water, they are bending their legs to fill containers with it. The containers hold nearly five gallons of water and can weigh about 40 pounds, or the weight of two large bags of ice, when full. By the time their journey is over we have showered and are well into our day without a second thought of the amount of water we use daily.
The convenience of water in our lives should not distract us from its status as a luxury elsewhere in the world. A few drops in the bucket can go a long way in providing developing countries access to clean water.
— Tim Palmieri
Nearly two hours away from my warm apartment on a particularly cold November afternoon, I found myself playing drums and shaking maracas inside a large barn with inventor and patent agent Jaquelin Spong, who has a Ph.D in applied physics.
The day only got more interesting.
I was in awe as she led me through her house and her large backyard, pointing out every homemade invention we passed along the way. She is particularly interested in solar energy, and her 2 acres are littered with prototypes and working devices she uses on a regular basis. She had built a homemade rock wall and offered to hook me up to give it a try; I got to feel the warmth coming out of a solar powered invention that she uses to heat her house; she showed me a hot tub and sauna that she had configured to run off of a small wood fireplace; and she showed me her Fresnel Water Purifier. By the end of my visit I had heard turkey gobbles and even fed her two sheep.
Dirty and cold, I hopped straight into the shower the moment I got home. As I slowly warmed up, this reminded me that a simple shower is easily taken for granted, as many people in developing countries don’t have access to something we consider a necessity. According to the United Nations Human Development report, an American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing country slum uses for an entire day.
Global water scarcity means that people not only don’t have access to safe water to drink – but they also do not have water to cook with, water to clean themselves or their food with, and many people are living without access to something as simple as toilets. More people on our planet have a cellphone than people who have access to a toilet; meanwhile my little sister uses both by texting me from the bathroom to ask for more toilet paper!
Lack of clean water for sanitation and hygiene perpetuates a cycle of disease in developing countries. Diarrhea and other related diseases that are spread from lack of sanitation are the number one cause of child mortality, killing an estimated 2,000 children under the age of five every single day.
While the problem may be clear, the solution is murky. Humanitarian organizations seem to be doing their best, yet many water purification systems are expensive and hard to fix if broken. Dr. Spong’s background with degrees in engineering and applied physics from Yale and Stanford, coupled with her intense passion for solar energy solutions, led her to creating the Fresnel Water Purifier. Her goal was to create something different from what is already out there by making it affordable, environmentally friendly, and easy to set up.
She and her team are confident that the purifier will fill a much-needed void, especially in rural villages that don’t get much attention from larger organizations. I’ll be watching with baited breath as she works to deploy her purifier across Central America, and looks to Africa for her next invention.