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Water & Sanitation

How salt and a car battery are bringing clean water to the developing world

shai kessel/ Wikimedia

Though it looks and operates more like a kid’s science-fair project than a solution to the global water crisis, a new device created through a partnership between an outdoor-equipment manufacturer and a nonprofit global-health organization could give remote communities around the world a simple, effective way to purify their water.

Globally, about 750 million people lack access to clean and safe drinking water. Untreated water, full of parasites from animal and human waste or other contaminants, leads to illnesses that cause 840,000 deaths a year. In fact, the second largest cause of death for young children in the developing world are diarrheal diseases attributed to the use of unsafe drinking water.

According to the World Health Organization, of all the available water disinfectants, chlorine is “the most widely used, the most easily used, and the most affordable,” and it is also “highly effective against nearly all waterborne pathogens.” While there are continuing efforts to distribute chlorine to remote communities in the developing world, this new device allows people to easily make it themselves.

The SE200 Community Chlorine Maker mixes salt, water, and the electricity from a 12-volt battery to quickly create a chlorine solution that can purify 55 gallons of water. Users pour a spoonful of salt and water into a soup-can-size container that then plugs into a car or motorcycle battery via a set of small jumper cables. Salt naturally dissolves into sodium and chloride ions, and when the small electric charge is applied at the push of a button, the chloride ions oxidize into chlorine. The whole process takes just five minutes.

SE200CommunityChlorineMaker-.jpgThe SE200 Community Chlorine Maker.
Image: YouTube

In 2008, the global health nonprofit PATH challenged outdoor equipment maker Mountain Safety Research to “find a way for 50 to 200 people, with no money and intermittent access to the supply chain, to have clean water,” said Laura McLaughlin, director of MSR’s Global Health division, in a company statement. MSR was already researching and developing chlorinator devices for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Marine Corps.

“This technology is what happens when a world-class global health organization and a 40-year-old outdoor company set out to solve a problem,” said McLaughlin recently, speaking at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle, where the SE200 was touted as one of the best new inventions.

Before going on the market in May, the SE200 had already been field-tested in 10 countries, including Kenya, Ghana, India, and Haiti. The device isn’t cheap—about $200—but MSR claims it can handle the water-treatment needs of 200 people for five years.

“This tiny device can fulfill the need for safe drinking water every day for hundreds of people in developing countries,” said Glenn Austin, senior technical officer at PATH, at the GeekWire Summit.

There are still a few challenges, however, as some wonder if people in remote areas of the world will have the skills or willingness to use the device. MSR has addressed that by trying to make it user-friendly. The container lights up when the button is pushed and remains on during the process, smiley faces indicate the proper solution mixture, and the instructions are in pictures.

Meanwhile, MSR and PATH are at work developing a much larger “electrochlorinator” for distribution, using similar technology that could be used at refugee camps or in disaster areas, where there is great demand for larger volumes of water. In an effort to get more people to use the device, MSR and PATH have partnered with the Washington Global Health Alliance, the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, and World Vision to help introduce the SE200 to communities lacking access to clean water.

This article was written by David McNair in support of TakePart.