Smith: Pure Water for More Than 3 Billion People Worldwide

James Smith holds up a funnel like object for the camera

James Smith

James A. Smith, Henry L. Kinnier Professor of Environmental Engineering, has been selected as the co-winner of the 2015 Edlich-Henderson Innovator of the Year Award, given by the University of Virginia Licensing & Ventures Group.

He is the founder of Pure Madi, a nonprofit organization working to bring purified water to the developing world, and MadiDrop PBC, a public benefit company incorporated to disseminate the MadiDrop, a clay disk invented at U.Va. by Smith and his team that makes use of nano-silver particles to purify the water.

He recently discussed the technology behind PureMadi and its potential impact around the planet.

Q. What does it mean to receive an innovation award?

It’s a great honor to receive this award, especially considering the remarkable innovators who have received it in the past, along with my co-awardee, Ben Calhoun. To invent something that has the potential to be a truly disruptive technology and potentially help millions of people is very exciting for me. It’s been a team effort, with so many students, alumni and faculty all contributing. We have come up with some really exciting fundamental science. We have found a way to form 2- to 3-nanometer-diameter patches of silver in a porous ceramic. Previous silver nanoparticles are all bigger than 10 nm. We have put it all together into a ceramic tablet to purify water for an entire family at a cost of just a few dollars every six months.

Q. How does the technology work?

A. There are two technologies. The first is the ceramic filter technology and it is being led by our nonprofit, PureMadi. PureMadi is teaching local community members in developing world communities to manufacture ceramic water filters impregnated with silver nanoparticles. They can make these filters from water, clay, sawdust (a waste product), and a colloidal silver solution. They mix the clay, water and sawdust together, press it into the shape of a pot, and fire it in a kiln, a high-temperature oven that can be heated with firewood. At the high kiln temperature, the clay hardens into a ceramic and the sawdust combusts, leaving pores for water flow. After firing, we paint the filter with a colloidal silver solution. This is an aqueous suspension of silver nanoparticles. Silver is a remarkably effective disinfectant for waterborne pathogens. The nanoparticles lodge in the pore space of the filter. We can then put the filter in a common five-gallon painter’s bucket with a spigot, and water poured into the filter is purified by physical filtration and chemical disinfection by the silver nanoparticles.

By teaching local potters to manufacture and sell the filters, the revenue from filter sales stays in the community while improving water quality, human health and quality of life of the surrounding community.

The MadiDrop is our invention. It is a ceramic tablet infused with silver in a special way that we have discovered. The infusion results in silver nanopatches” that are only a few nanometers in diameter.

The MadiDrop is remarkably simple to use. The user just drops it in their household water storage container and it purifies the water for six months. The MadiDrop works by releasing silver ions in solution to a level that disinfects waterborne pathogens, but is still well below the silver drinking-water standard.

Q. How was the facility in Limpopo, South Africa looked upon by locals?

A. Our filter factory in Limpopo Province, South Africa has been a great success so far. We engaged a group of about 40 women potters in the rural community of Mashamba. They are expert potters, but the market for their pottery has declined over the past decade and they have been seeking different sources of revenue. They already had experience with crafting ceramic pots, and their facility is located just a few hundred meters from a massive clay deposit.

Needless to say, they have been remarkably excited. To date, they have manufactured about 1,000 filters, and they are currently working on filling an additional order for 1,100 filters from Rotary International.

Q. What is your vision for this technology? Where will we be in the next five to 10 years? Will the world have clean water?

A. For PureMadi, we are working to create 10 to 12 filter factories in the developing world over the next eight to nine years. We are currently starting our second factory in Hammanskraal, South Africa. This is in partnership with Khulisa Social Solutions. Each factory is being designed to manufacture about 1,000 filters per month. Considering that each filter can provide a family of five with purified water, we should be able to positively impact half a million people per year.

For the MadiDrop, we are taking a different approach. Since the MadiDrop is durable and easy to transport, we are targeting a more centralized distribution strategy. We have formed MadiDrop PBC, which is a public benefit company that operates between a typical C-corporation and a non-profit. We plan to manufacture and distribute MadiDrops from right here in Central Virginia.

Our first distribution channels will likely be large and medium-sized non-governmental organizations, like U.S. AID, the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Relief Services, the Red Cross and Oxfam International. Later, we will explore more conventional retail markets in the developing world.

We estimate that there are over 3 billion people worldwide who can benefit from this technology, and we plan to manufacture and sell several million MadiDrops over the next few years.

Q. How do you balance being a faculty member and an entrepreneur?

A. It’s very challenging. For me, the idea of commercializing a technology is a new thing. Fortunately, there are great people in Charlottesville and U.Va. to help. I have gotten remarkable support from people like Mark White in the Commerce School; Lisa Colosi Peterson, Nathan Swami and Jim Aylor in Engineering; and Becca Dillingham in the School of Medicine. We have also received great support from students in the Darden School of Business like Billy DuVal.

I also have to thank Beeta Ehdaie, Carly Krause, Chloe Rento, Veronica Son, Sydney Turner, Matthew Smith, Rekha Singh and David Kahler. These are all students and postdoctoral researchers in engineering who have put in thousands of hours of their time to help develop the MadiDrop. David Dusseau has been indispensable in moving MadiDrop PBC forward, along with people like Steve Campbell and Chris Conti.

I would be remiss not to mention the remarkable achievements of our PureMadi team. Without the accomplishments of Rebecca Kelly, Theresa Hackett, Sydney Schrider, Molly Tyeryar, Rachel Schmidt, Lydia Abebe, Caroline Hackett and many others, our filter factory would never have existed. Our international partners at the University of Venda have also been critical to our successes, particularly Professor Amidou Samie. Of course, our myriad financial supporters deserve so many thanks. They have embraced our work for the past three years and insured our success.

Media Contact

Chiara Canzi

UVA Licensing and Ventures Group