Poseidon: Portable water filter for disaster relief efforts

For all the technological progress the world has ushered in, access to clean drinking water remains a problem that afflicts developing nations.

Statistics bear testament to the dire need to address this issue. A 2019 research from Our World in Data reveals that 2.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. This amounts to a staggering 29% of the world population. In addition to that, 1.2 million people die annually from the consumption of unsafe drinking water, and 6% of deaths in low-income countries have been attributed to unreliable water sources.

The problem is further exacerbated in the event of natural disasters when people who do not have access to clean water face long waits for reinforcements to be delivered. Floods or earthquakes cripple accessibility by causing roads to be closed to affected areas.

The Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC), in collaboration with Monash University Malaysia, and Newcastle University, has developed Poseidon, a portable filtration device that can be fitted to a water bottle. This allows people who are deprived of access to clean water to filter what they drink.

According to Associate Professor Dr Pooria Pasbakhsh from the School of Engineering, the initiative was kickstarted by an undergraduate student, Maziyar Makaremi, in 2012,  as part of Monash's Undergraduate Research Opportunity (UROP). It was further developed in 2014 as part of a Final Year Project. The result was a research that was published, first in The Journal of Physical Chemistry C, American Chemical Society (ACS) in 2015, followed by the RSC Advances Journal, Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) journal in 2016. These publications were followed by two more journal papers in Elsevier, where the filters were tested using state-of-the-art micromechanical systems.

A few years into the research, the project was partially financed by the EPSRC Partnering for GCRF (Global Challenge Research Funds) which involved four institutions and two continents. Dr Goh Kheng Lim and Dr Vladimir Zivkovic from the University of Newcastle led the project from their side. In 2018, the project was awarded a mobility grant fund from Monash University Malaysia.

There are many different types of water filters in the market. However, what sets Poseidon apart from its competitors is its small and compact design, produced at a fraction of the cost of other similar water filters. Its design ensures it can be easily fitted into any drinking water bottle, and it can be distributed to the rural areas in case of a disaster where there is no access to the affected people.

Despite the wide availability of water filters in the market, Pasbakhsh was resolute about the product's potential for success due to its affordability.

"No one has made water filter as cheap as this," he said, adding that its quality is on par as others in the market as Poseidon successfully removes bacteria, BPA and heavy metals, in addition to passing industry and WHO standards. There are many filters out there. But not much attention has been paid to heavy metal removal in portable water bottles. Heavy metals are a concern in countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

"We are making this as cheap, light, and as easy as possible to be distributed to the public. None of the existing water filters in the market focuses on disaster management. We aim to help people have clean water for the next two to three days until they get help," he said.

Polluted groundwater must undergo several filtering processes before it is safe for consumption. Microparticles, nanoparticles, heavy metals, bacteria, sand, and mud are amongst the things that have to be filtered out.

"Other things that need to be filtered are odour, chlorine and BPA. That's why you see activated carbon in most water filters. Activated carbon is one of the cheapest ways to remove water odour and taste," explained Pasbakhsh.

Built from nanofiber, which is sourced from an electrospinning process, and aided by membranes that form tissues, Poseidon ensures every step of the water filtration process is adhered to strictly. The filters are reinforced with different types of nanomaterials as well to bring high thermal, mechanical and antibacterial performance to the water filters.

Part of the success of any water filter is measured through the flow and rejection rates. Cubic meters of water that still contain foreign particles will not be allowed to flow, resulting in rejection. Similarly, water that is successfully filtered for all the particles as mentioned earlier will be allowed to circulate for consumption.

During Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, thousands of cartons of water containing millions of water bottles were left on the runway when a lack of accessibility hampered relief efforts to the affected areas. This left millions in a lurch, with no access to clean water.

In its report, CBS News, quoting officials from Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said the "Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should have distributed the water to victims on the island. However, the agency didn't track specific shipments."

"Helicopters are being used to distribute water to people by dropping it. But if it is in the middle of a jungle or a river or a community which is in a disaster area, where is the helicopter going to land? They'll have to land in an open area to drop off the water, but how are people going to get there, as roads will be closed?" asked Pasbakhsh.

As one unit of Poseidon can filter 1,000 litres of water, those involved in relief support can instead opt to deliver their water filter instead, relieving them of the trouble of delivering heavy cartons of water. The disaster victim would only have to fit in their portable filtration device into their water bottles.

"It is very light that even a kid can carry it," he said, adding that its relatively cheap cost assures its place in the market as an instant water filtration tool.

"Even if you could afford that expensive water filter, how do you bring it to those in disaster areas? We've designed it in such a way that it's easy to bring it to those communities, and we can even teach people how to make it," added Pasbakhsh.

Poseidon is currently being tested in Sri Lanka under the leadership of Dr Rangika De Silva (SLIENTEC), who is an alumni from the School of Engineering.

"We are testing this in the polluted waters of Sri Lanka as the country is home to factories and industries which might emit heavy metals to the environment. Our focus is in Malaysia and Sri Lanka. But we would like to bring this product to other countries once we find the investors. We need investors to come to the fore and fund projects so we can help society."

The team is in the process of applying for a patent for Poseidon in Sri Lanka.