UNC-CH experiments reveal new 'pen' can disinfect water

May 23, 2000

During disasters, civilian or military conflicts and wilderness recreation, disinfecting drinking, cooking and washing-up water can make the difference between getting sick and staying well, but chemical disinfectants such as chlorine and fuels to boil water often are unavailable in the field.

To help solve that problem, researchers have developed a battery-powered disinfecting "pen." The device electrochemically generates mixed oxidants from a salt solution that individuals can use to purify drinking water.

Tests of the invention recently took place at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Environmental Health Microbiology Laboratories. Dr. Mark D. Sobsey, professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC-CH School of Public Health, led the effort with doctoral students Maren E. Anderson and Julie A. Kase.

Los Alamos Technical Associates and MIOX Corp. of Albuquerque developed the pen, and the latter funded the UNC-CH research. Results of the independent analysis are being presented at a news conference at the 100th annual general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Los Angeles Wednesday (May 24).

Investigators evaluated the new battery-powered tool to see how well it inactivated waterborne parasites, viruses and bacteria. Several alternative pen cell designs also were tested by seeding oxidant solutions generated from the pen with test microbes, including highly chlorine-resistant Cryptosporidium parvum, a major source of contamination in water.

"There was dramatic -- more than 99.99 percent -- reduction of all test bacteria and viruses within one to 10 minutes," Sobsey said. "Considerable inactivation of C. parvum was also achieved within 90 minutes, the amount depending on the design of the pen cell."

Experiments demonstrated that the miniature pen cell electrochemically generated a mixture of oxidants from a salt solution that was able to inactivate C. parvum eggs, as well as bacterial spores, bacteria and viruses to produce safer drinking water in minutes, he said.

"The pen cell makes it possible for people to easily and quickly have safe supplies of personal drinking water in remote and isolated areas and during situations where water supplies are at risk of being contaminated," Sobsey said. "There is a very big need for this, and it almost certainly will save lives."

Users put a small amount of water into the pen, and then salt pellets dissolve in the water, which comes in contact with battery-powered electrodes, he explained. Within 30 or so seconds of flicking a switch, a chemical reaction known as electrolysis generates chlorine and other oxidants from the saltwater.

"The solution contents are then added to a quart bottle of water or a canteen," Sobsey said. "This delivers enough oxidants to disinfect the water in 10 minutes even better than plain chlorine does, and then the water can be drunk safely."

To protect soldiers, the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) paid for developing the MIOX Disinfection Pen, which is seven inches long and weighs four ounces. A lighter, less expensive version is being designed for the outdoor recreation market.
-end-
Note: Anderson can be reached at 919-966-7316 or meanders@email.unc.edu,
Sobsey at 966-7303 or mark_sobsey@unc.edu.
During the meeting, Sobsey can be reached at his hotel at 213-628-2222.

School of Public Health Contact: Lisa Katz, 919-966-7467.
News Services Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596.




University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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