Technology in the water sector

Water ram on pavement.jpg

Whatever is that contraption on the right?

It’s a hydraulic water ram, the history and function of which I’ll get to in a minute, but first a few words about technology and water

Truth: Water’s a patent office bonanza. Imagine all the invention that’s gone into water treatment, water power, water-saving devices, water testing, waste water processing, the design of toilets, even the technology around swimming pools and the functions of water parks.

Invention is spurred first by necessity, of course, but also by technology competitions. For example, to pick a behemoth, the George Barley Water Prize competition that in 2021 will award a mind-boggling $10 million to a team that comes up with a safe, effective and affordable way to remove phosphorus – a principal source of algae -- from water.

There are lesser competitions that run annually: the  Stockholm Water Prize from the Stockholm International Water Institute and various awards from the US Water Alliance, an association of industry and public sector utilities, to name a couple.

Then, too, the MIT Water Innovation Prize. Several years ago I began tracking a trio of Taiwanese graduate students who won accolades and money for finding a way to recycle water in washing machines. The pitch was that the device would “reinvent laundry” most meaningfully in places where washing machines are in constant use – hotels, for example. The students went on to  launch an enterprise called Aqua Fresco to test out the marketplace.

Interested in what other products can come out of such competitions? The next MIT Water Innovation Prize competition is April 18.

I tracked a water innovator of a different sort to international recognition. It was a company named Rentricity that designed and installed a power-in-a-pipe hydropower system in the water treatment plant of Keene, New Hampshire. The system generates electricity from the force of water flowing in by gravity from an upland reservoir. The design, which Rentricity later took to other treatment plants in North America, in 2012 won a prize from an organization called the Global Cleantech Cluster Association in Ireland.

Now, then, the hydraulic water ram that started this blog entry. It’s a device, invented in England and refined in France in the 1700s, that uses pressure created by the force of water flowing into a chamber to pump water uphill. In the late 1800s one was used in a stream near where I live in New Hampshire that sent water 100 feet up to a farm. Pumping water uphill – a miracle move in days before gasoline and electrical power. Here’s how a water ram works.

The water ram pictured here was recently rescued from an old warehouse in Connecticut. Its new owner hopes to install it in a stream that flows through his farm in New Hampshire.

There are modern low-cost versions, including a series of patented rams from a development outfit in the Philippines that’s been helping lift water to upland farms and villages all over the world.  Not long ago the Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation won a prize for its design from Ashden, a British charity that promotes sustainable development.

Bottom line: water can set the inventive juices flowing. You’ll find more about the water ram and other technology breakthroughs in the new book “Water Connections.”