Future Tense

This “Drinkable Book” Filters Water for Four Years. Wait, What?

The pages are coated with silver nanoparticles that purify water as it trickles through.

Photo courtesy of Brian Gartside.

If you think books are old tech, you may be dismissing them too soon. The latest application for the folio design is a collection of water filters that are long-lasting and also provide information about consuming unsafe water. The humanitarian group WaterisLife and the ad agency DDB have teamed up to bring these books to developing countries with unreliable water sources.

Millions of people around the world don’t have access to clean water for basic needs like drinking, cooking, and bathing. And 3.4 million people die every year from waterborne diseases. WaterisLife points out that though options are limited in these settings, many people who ingest unsafe water don’t even know that it could hurt them. So the goal of the “Drinkable Book” is to provide cheap and effective water filters while also educating people about how dangerous contaminated water can be.

Working with researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Virginia, WaterisLife and DDB supported scalability work and design based on research conducted by Teri Dankovich for her Ph.D. at McGill University. Dankovich found a way to coat cardstock with silver nanoparticles that attract bacteria and toxins when water trickles by. Dankovich says her research indicates that the filters leave water more than 99.9 percent pure. Each page of the book can filter about 30 days’ worth of clean drinking water, and the whole book can last about four years.

After finishing up her Ph.D., Dankovich began a post-doc at the University of Virginia. “I led a team of undergraduates in field tests in South Africa of this antibacterial paper,” she wrote in an email. “All of the chemicals used [to treat the paper] have been selected because they are safe, renewable, and nontoxic.”

The project’s designer, Brian Gartside, contacted Dankovich about the project about a year ago. “I came across Theresa Dankovich’s research and was immediately blown away by the potential of her filters,” Gartside wrote in an email. “One of WaterisLife’s biggest challenges (beyond providing clean water) is teaching proper sanitation/hygiene, so this was a perfect opportunity to not only introduce the new filters, but also to do it in a way that meaningfully addresses both problems.”

Pulling a filter out of the book.

Photo courtesy of Brian Gartside.

Each page of the book is divided by perforation into two squares. The top half has information printed in English, while the bottom half is printed in a locally spoken language. The first run was printed in English and Swahili to be distributed in Kenya, but the goal is to expand printing for languages spoken in all 33 countries where WaterisLife operates.

Gartside says that the design process for the book was driven by both uncontrollable factors and aesthetic choices. The book’s distinctive orange color comes from the silver nanoparticle coating, and its presence indicates that the right chemical reactions have happened in adhering the coating to the cardstock. The group also had to find a vendor that would make food-grade ingestible ink that could be used for letterpress printing. The first run was about 100 books, and the group worked with Bowe House Press in Virginia to make sure the presses were completely clean.

When Gartside used the book himself, he says he was impressed with its effectiveness and ease of use. “I was skeptical at first that water would even be able to make it through the paper (the stock is very thick), but it filters at a rate that I’d estimate to be comparable to the filter jug I have sitting in my fridge,” he says.

The group is still negotiating manufacturing costs, and the first press run of “Drinkable Books” isn’t a good indicator because some costs were higher (filtration trays were 3-D printed instead of injection molded) and some costs were lower (many companies donated their services to the cause) than they will be when the books are being produced at scale. But Gartside says the goal is, of course, to produce the books as cheaply as possible, hopefully for pennies a page. The chemical treatment is inexpensive and already fits into this price point.

It’s not exactly a beach read, but if “Drinkable Books” can be widely distributed they might actually have an impact on the spread of waterborne diseases. And once again, books are on the cutting edge of technology.