Monday, October 20, 2008
A Water testing kit X PRIZE??
One of the big problems I've encountered in the field as a water engineer is the lack of reliable diagnostic kits (doctors, pharmacists and other scientists have complained about the same in their fields too). And its hard to design a water purification system without knowing what the water quality is like. Quite often you have to bring your own equipment. But being as cumbersome as the equipment can get, its hard to get back-ups. They are expensive to buy, run the risk of breaking down, and when they do, its hard to find anyone to fix it right. In addition, tests can take varying amounts of time. For example, fecal coliform tests (a test that shows whether and how much fecal bugs are in the water...its an indicator for the level of bad bugs in the water) can take 24 hours at the minimum. If you are in a cholera zone and trying to decipher which water sources are contaminated, twenty four hours is simply too long!
Another important aspect of water testing is showing locals why they need to treat their water. The poor, who are generally illiterate or minimally educated, are unable to grasp the concept of germs or chemical or biological contaminants. So they don't easily buy into why they need to invest in disinfecting their water particularly when it looks "clear" or close to it. The poor are extremely visual; using testing kits that explain contamination visually is a huge first step to causing positive behaviorial changes.
Generally the technical issues you encounter in the field aren't that complex; its the socio economic problems that are far more complex to solve. Still the technical stuff needs to be flawless, because too often fingers are pointed at the technical design of an intervention, when really the assessments of resource conditions (eg. water quality, soil conditions, weather conditions, etc) or socioeconomic circumstances have not been properly carried out. In this context, testing and calibration kits play a central part in the assessment of local water conditions.
For all these reasons, one of the many ideas we have been considering is an X PRIZE that would involve the design of rapid water test kits (something like a pregnancy test) that give clear indicators of contamination levels. (Think a positive/negative arsenic, fluoride, pathogen test).
Recently I came across these two kits that are being developed. I also know of a separate initiative that a graduate student at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) is attempting of a similar nature, but the details of her research are not clear yet.
The first is the Aquatest, a kit being developed at Bristol University, which will give positive/negative fecal coliform tests in 24 hours at a cost of 10 cents per kit(!!). That is phenomenal, considering that a kit available today costs $70 at the very minimum.
Down Under (Australia), the Environmental Biotechnology Research Center is trying to develop an instant positive/negative fecal coliform kit. Although price points have still not been identified, this is another kit that can have immeasurable value.
Any thoughts on others that are out there or about developing a prize like this?? Water engineers, it would be great to get your opinions.