Man must explore, and this is exploration at its greatest

Written by Maz Ali (Chief Scientist @Ketos)

Posted by Ketos on April 11, 2017

The ultimate medicine, named after the goddess of universal remedy in Greek mythology, Panacea, was said to heal any and all ills, sicknesses, injuries, and maladies. Regardless of the specific case, one simply had to have a sip from her chalice and all their ailments would be removed and their health restored. This is a tantalizing concept to anyone, but especially to engineers.

The idea of a “catch-all” technology; one simple solution to a vast and complex problem-space, is appealing, but generally unrealistic. For example, we know that there is no one perfect technology for producing energy. We apply different methodologies for different circumstances; solar in sunny regions, windmills in windy regions, turbines for rivers and oceans, coal and oil while we had abundances of them, etc.

Water treatment is no exception. We do have a variety of technologies at our disposal including particulate filtration and chemical and bacterial treatments and we do our best to apply these technologies in an intelligent and informed manner to be as effective as possible. But we are only as good as the amount of information we have, and we don’t have enough. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t act on it”…

You can log into google maps and check for an accident on your route home and it will be accurate to the minute, but no one can check to what the level of lead contamination is in their drinking water at home, or work, etc. There are only 350 automated groundwater testing sites in California and the available parameters they monitor (for quality) are very few with metal toxins like lead not being one of them. (https://waterdata.usgs.gov/ca/nwis/dv/?referred_module=gw). There is no onsite, real-time tracking of heavy metal contamination, radioactivity, bacteria, and viruses.

Large water treatment plants sample their own product before and after treatment, do manual testing and wait for results, but this is a process that can range from hours to days. And, as the nation clearly learned from Flint, just because the water is clean leaving the source doesn’t mean it is safe coming out of your tap. People have activated carbon filters to help improve taste of their water, but it does little for bacterial/viral contaminants and minerals, salts, and other inorganics.

Reverse osmosis systems are expensive and horribly inefficient, pushing 25% only in the best units. Throwing away 3 out of 4 gallons of your water down the drain when 4 billion people on earth won’t have access to fresh water 1 out of 12 months is pretty grossly wasteful. (http://www.allianceforwaterefficiency.org/RO_Discharge_Introduction.aspx?terms=alternate+water+source, and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/water-scarcity- study_us_56c1ebc5e4b0b40245c72f5e).

Currently only lab testing is available for some of the critical contaminants that are significantly impacting over 60% of the US population (https://www.epa.gov/environmental-topics/water-topics). This means we have to be reactive; people drink water, if it is bad they get sick, they go see doctors, as quickly as they can (and if you are lucky) they trace it to a contaminant in the drinking water, and then remediation begins. This process takes a long time. Flint switched its water supply on April 21, 2014. It wasn’t until Feb. 26, 2015 that the EPA detected lead levels seven times higher than the EPA limit in homes (and this was only after people complained about the discolored water).

We need to apply the right technologies for the right use cases, but to do that we need to have far more reliable, accurate and active monitoring to dramatically increase our available data.

We need to know what is in the water to make the right technological choice. We need the ability to remotely and automatically monitor water so that we can be proactive, and head-off potentially life-threatening problems before they take root.

Can we generate a wide-spread water quality grid, monitoring at tens of thousands, not hundreds, of places across California and many multiples more for the whole US/world? What could we do with a real-time map of Water metrics? Imagine see the effects of a fracking well, or a chemical spill, or a hurricane, a tsunami, a disease outbreak, etc. in real time as a function of location and time! The benefit to data science and fundamental research aside, such a network could save thousands of lives and untold amounts of damage. Until then, more and more scenarios like Flint will arise across the world.

Every other person I tend to meet either is, or is aspiring to become, a data scientist. Everyone wants to use modern computing power to pull some game-changing conclusion out of what seems like innocuous data. But almost no-one seems to be willing to take on the real difficult challenge; generating new data. Those game-changing conclusions are only as good (and complete) as the data-set from which they were drawn and right now, that isn’t very good at all. We, at KETOS aim to tackle this crucial problem through disruptive technologies that can enable active monitoring of water metrics and help people, businesses and governments all obtain and understand actionable water metrics like never before.