The Rain Maker: Water Desalination

(Source: Courtesy of Billions in Change)

What can be more paramount than addressing the global need for water? Something so basic in nature and fundamental to almost every aspect of human existence and yet continues to see ever-increasing shortages around the world. These shortages being either due to physical water scarcity or economic water scarcity; effects of which are causing (or will cause):

  • Inadequate access to safe drinking water for roughly 880 million people
  • Inadequate access to sanitation for 2.5 billion people, which often leads to water pollution
  • Excessive use of groundwater leading to diminished agricultural yields
  • Overuse and pollution of water resources harming biodiversity
  • Regional conflicts over scarce water resources sometimes resulting in conflict (or even warfare).

It is therefore of some promise when a person such as Manoj Bhargava – through his investment fund Stage 2 Innovations – comes along with the Rain Maker; a ‘desalination unit roughly the size of a flatbed truck that relies on a conventional power source to distill seawater into freshwater’. A much-needed device that could prove to be the solution for the livelihoods of millions of people that live in coastal areas, and, with its ability to be coupled with other such devices or used as a ‘stand alone’ device, even be used inland. Such a device could be the answer to solving one of the world’s most important resource scarcity dilemmas and turn the 97.5% of currently undrinkable sea water into potable water.

What makes the Rain Maker so special is its uniqueness and simplicity. The device heats sea water until it becomes water vapor and then sends it through a series of compartments thereby distilling it into clean water. It doesn’t require any extravagant parts either – no consumable parts, no screens, filters, or parts that require frequent replacement. Rain Makers can create up to 1000 gallons of drinking water out of sea water every hour and to almost every level of purity. Bhargava hopes that although current desalination machines produce water too salty for agricultural use, the Rain Maker will be able to turn salt water into pharmaceutical grade water. Moreover, their simplistic design and assembly makes them easy to mass produce.

The man who made billions off the ubiquitous 5-Hour Energy drink supplements has now pledged to donate 90% of his wealth to innovations and causes such as water desalination in an attempt to make meaningful change at a time when climate change looks to burden us with increasing problems at every turn. His endeavors are so great that a documentary was even made in 2015 about his steps towards change.


Plastic-Eating Wax Worms

(Source: Federica Bertocchini/Paolo Bombelli/Chris Howe)

State of global garbage

Research from former World Bank urban development specialists Dan Hoornweg and his colleagues Perinaz Bhada-Tata and Chris Kennedy have found that without transformational changes in how we use and reuse materials, the amount of garbage we throw away will continue to increase and will not peak this century. While developing countries still produce the majority of global garbage it is developing countries that are also increasing their production; they also found that the sooner Sub-Saharan Africa’s waste increase peaks, the sooner we will be able to determine when the world’s trash problem will decline.

The World Bank notes with grave concern that if business continues as usual solid waste generation will increase 70% by 2025 and by 2100 will reach 11 million tonnes per day globally. Moreover, the cost of dealing with such vast amounts of trash produced are increasing, putting enormous pressure on both governments and the environment. Therefore, any innovative means in dealing with garbage will likely reduce these pressures and move us towards a scenario that involves a brighter and greener future. It is a highly noteworthy find then that a particular kind of worm has been found that eats plastic – a major component of non-biodegradable garbage.

The wax worm

Spanish National Research Council scientist and amateur beekeeper Federica Bertocchini was fortunate to discover that worms in the wild that normally feed on wax also have a voracious appetite for devouring plastic. Bertocchini realised the discovery when she released a worm infestation from one of her beehives into a plastic bag in her garbage; the worms were able to escape by eating their way out of the plastic bag.

The Galleria mellonella, or wax worm as it is known, can eat upto 92 milligrams of plastic within 12 hours when atleast 100 of them are present. Until now, the only use of such worms was as premium fish bait, but their new found ability could present itself as a solution to one of our major global problems. The worms are able to break down polyethylene with the same enzymes they use to break down wax in the wild. The ramification of this great find is that scientists believe they could extract the gene responsible for the enzyme and put it into E.coli bacteria or marine phytoplankton in order to break down plastics in the wild. Additionally, large numbers of these worms could be bred and then set on plastic waste in order to help reduce it. However, this latter use depends on further research to figure out whether the worms were in fact eating plastic as food or just as a means of escape.