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Nano filters for the masses in India

23 December 2009

Erika Kinetz

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India’s Tata Group has launched a compact energy efficient water purifier, Tata Swachh that can save millions of lives from waterborne diseases. It uses paddy husk ash and silver nanoparticles to kill harmful germs.

India's Tata Group launched a water purifier priced for the masses Monday that the company hopes will help save the lives of millions of people who die each year of waterborne diseases.

Image credits: The Globe and the Mail/ Tata Swachh launched in India

The purifier is the latest in a string of Tata initiatives – like the ultra-cheap Nano car and affordable Tata apartments – that target a lower income rural market many companies have ignored.

“The whole group has been fired with the view of how can we create products which were earlier not within reach of the vast number of people through innovation and technology, not just stripping down the value of the product,” Tata Sons chairman Ratan Tata said.

The Tata Swachh – Hindi for “clean” – meets US Environmental Protection Agency standards, and doesn't require running water, electricity, or boiling, executives said.

It's cheaper than boiling water, cheaper than bottled water, and 2.5 times less expensive than Hindustan Unilever's low-cost Pureit filter, according to data provided by the companies.

Tata will sell two versions of the 19-litre Swach container, priced at 749 rupees ($16.11) and 999 rupees ($21.48), depending on the material.
The filter itself costs 299 rupees ($6.43). It will purify 800 gallons (3,000 liters) of water – enough for a family of five for a year – before it automatically shuts down.

Hindustan Unilever's Pureit filter, which also does not require access to running water or electricity, costs 2,000 rupees ($43.01), with a replaceable battery kit that costs 365 rupees ($7.85) and can purify 1,500 litre of water.

Hindustan Unilever says it sold more than three million Pureit filters for the fiscal year ending March 2009, with sales of 1.9 billion rupees.

The Swach, a pet project of Ratan Tata, is the group's bet that the private sector can offer a better, consumer-based solution to one of the world's most persistent health problems than most governments in the developing world can.

Image credits: SciDev/ The filter should provide enough clean water for one family for a year

Some 1.2 billion people globally don't have access to safe water, according to a 2006 UNDP report. Almost 80% of diseases in developing countries are associated with water, causing some 3 million early deaths, according to a 2009 UNESCO report. In India alone, 380,000 children die each year from diarrhea, according to UNICEF.

Tata's water filter grew out of a decade of research and development. It uses paddy husk ash as a matrix, bound with microscopic particles of silver to kill the bacteria that cause 80% of waterborne disease, executives said.

The current model doesn't neutralise chemicals like arsenic and fluoride, which contaminate some ground water in India, but future versions will, executives said.

Paddy husk ash has long been known for its cleansing properties – it has been used traditionally for tooth washing – and India produces about 20 million tons of it a year.

Initial production will be one million units a year from a Tata Chemicals plant in Haldia, West Bengal, with a planned ramp-up to three million units annually within five years.

Executives said they plan to invest 1 billion rupees in the project over the next five years, and eventually export the filter to Africa.

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