Water purification: High-tech, small scale

Small-scale water purification systems can be the ideal solution for areas with poor water treatment infrastructure. Chris Lo talks to Michal Gur-Shavit of Strauss Water about squeezing a lot of technology into a small platform.

In the developed world, consumers can generally feel confident in the safety, quality and availability of the water that comes out of their taps. Although people may take this for granted, it is made possible by a huge and costly underlying infrastructure which requires massive investment to implement.

For remote areas of the world, even in rapidly industrialising nations like China, India and Brazil, this infrastructure is unreliable or even non-existent. For those areas where water represents a potential threat to public health, a small-scale, affordable water purification process that can be installed in the home is necessary.

"Each material removes a particular kind of contamination from the water."

That's where companies like Strauss Water come in. Based in Israel, a world leader in water purification and desalination, Strauss Water is a relatively young company moving into the market of micro-scale, home-based water purification with its innovative Maze system.

But as the company's R&D programmes, which include a partnership with Nasa's Atlantis shuttle to conduct water purification experiments in space, operating on a small scale can still be high-tech.

We spoke to Strauss Water's vice president of marketing Michal Gur-Shavit to discuss the challenges and potential of bringing water purification into the homes that need it, as well as debuting the Maze system in China.

Chris Lo: Can you give some background on Strauss Water's history in water purification?

Michal Gur-Shavit: Strauss Water, which is part of Strauss Group, is a young company. It started in 2006-07, when scientists from the Weizmann Institute and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem came to Strauss Group with a unique technology for purifying water.

The group decided to invest, so it was basically a start-up until 2009. The group has invested more and more money into it, and the technology was further developed.

In 2009, the technology had matured to the first product - this technology is today called Maze. At the end of 2009, the Strauss Group decided that in order to extend this technology to a full, big-scale business, it had to have some kind of operational platform.

So then they acquired Tana, which is the leader of the Israeli point-of-use market, at the end of 2009. So actually Strauss Water in its current structure has only been operating since the beginning of 2010.

CL: Could you explain more about the technology on which Maze is based?

MG-S: It's gravity-based, first of all. It's a small, all-in-one purifier, and it has a combination of materials inside that, with the help of a very unique process, it forces the water to go through all the materials inside.

Each material removes a particular kind of contamination from the water. So you have the parts that remove heavy metals, those that reduce volatile organic contaminants, improve the taste, you have the arsenic removal aspect and you have the microbiological contaminant removal.

This is why we call it the Maze, the water goes through this process until it comes out of the purifier. The purifier is fully certified to remove all these contaminants.

Basically, we don't know of any other technology that is available to households and which, at this size, removes all these contaminants.

It's small, available for household use and very affordable, price-wise. So basically, you can have the benefit of, let's say, a big industrial purifying system, in your house, at an affordable price and it's something that does not waste the quantities of water that reverse osmosis does, for example.

CL: Could you talk about the experiment Strauss Water conducted onboard the Atlantis shuttle?

MG-S: That was part of our R&D efforts. What we are trying to do is develop some kind of material that is polymer-based, and will be able to be used without it being actually contaminated by bacteria and viruses.

"Although the purification process sounds very simple, the appliance itself is not basic at all."

One of the most challenging things that all water producers and manufacturers are dealing with today is the fact that if you put water into some kind of plastic device, it will create bacteria and viruses.

What we are trying to do is develop a polymer-based material that won't specifically remove bacteria and viruses, but not allowing a development of those bacteria and viruses.

If we're successful in this development, we would try to incorporate it in all our technologies and all our appliances, because it will hopefully reduce the risk of contamination in all the parts that are actually dealing with the water itself.

CL: Can you tell me about Strauss Water's installation of water purification systems in China?

MG-S: China is the first country where we're selling Maze technology-based appliances. We developed a countertop, point-of-use appliance called the Water Maker.

The Water Maker is a gravity-based appliance, meaning you don't have to connect it to the mains - you can pour the water through to the upper tray, and the water is pulled through the purifier by gravity.

Although the purification process sounds very simple, the appliance itself is not basic at all. It has five different temperatures that you can pre-set and it has the possibility to pre-set the quantities of the water. It's very sophisticated in the Chinese market. It's a premium appliance.

CL: What are the biggest challenges when it comes to delivering safe drinking water to customers around the world?

MG-S: I think the biggest challenge is, on one hand, to create a technology that will remove all kinds of contaminants, and every day we hear about a new kind of contaminant that wasn't identified before, so you have to be very quick figuring out how to eliminate these new contaminants. For example, you hear about residues of pharmaceutical products and antibiotics in water that is not found all over the world, but you hear more and more about it.

But on the other hand, you have to keep in mind that if you want to have this technology available for people all around the world, you have to keep it at a price level that people can afford.

I think this is the most challenging thing. Other companies have proved that they can develop very expensive, complicated technologies, but then people cannot afford to buy it, even less people in remote areas of the world.

So what we're trying to do is have the best and safest water, but in a way that will be affordable for people in most parts of the world.

CL: Are you planning to offer the Maze system in other countries around the world?

MG-S: Strauss Water is hoping to continue its growth in other countries. We have the operation in Israel and the operation in China. We also just signed an agreement with Virgin in the UK.

What we're trying to do is go in two different directions. One is to go to markets where there is probably not an urgent water problem, like the UK.

In the UK there isn't a water problem, but in time there could be. So we're going to countries where we can bring the benefits of convenience - water in different temperatures and quantities, and so on.

On the other hand, we're also looking into markets like China, India and Brazil - places where they have very clear issues with the quality of water. We're hoping we'll be able to go into these countries and offer the solution that will suit their needs.

CL: As this technology develops, what new features could water purification systems begin to offer customers?

"Our intention is to bring safe water to the household, giving customers the ability to have the appliance in their own house."

MG-S: Something we work on every day is to understand the future contaminants and the future risks to drinking water around the world.

Parallel to this, we're trying to figure out what the solutions will be for these new contaminants. That's one of the routes that R&D is working on.

The second route is trying to figure out how to get those solutions to work in a small platform. Our intention is to bring safe water to the household, giving customers the ability to have the appliance in their own house.

It's the materials that will remove the contaminants from the water on the one hand, and it's also to bring those solutions to the customer in the right way - in the platform, in the size and in the price.

If you find something that can remove contaminants and it's too expensive, you try to understand how the material does what it does, and then you try to simulate or imitate it in something more affordable and more available. These are the two main roads we are going down.