The Next Big Thing

A Way To Produce Cheap, Clean Water

For inventor Dean Kamen, selling the Segway human transporter is a priority right now.

The Segway went on sale to consumers last November on the Internet for $5,000 per vehicle. The company won't say how many they've sold so far, but sales reportedly are not going well.

However, Kamen's dreams go far beyond the Segway. Correspondent Dan Rather reports.

Segway's marketing chief, Gary Bridge, says the company is targeting both the consumer and the military and industrial markets in Europe and Asia, where there are fewer regulatory hurdles than in the U.S.

"We're very, very interested in the consumer market in Europe, because you have a denser population," says Bridge.

"And you have bike trails everywhere, sidewalks that connect to bike trails, a tradition of walking, taking bikes on trains, intermodule. So all of the infrastructure is here that we look for."

Meanwhile, on a visit to London, Kamen cruised through the streets of central London, strutting his stuff before an audience of bewitched locals and tourists.

He discovered that he loved London taxis so much that he bought two of them and had them shipped all the way home to the airport in Manchester, N.H., where they are parked next to his personal jet. It's big stuff for a kid from a working-class New York suburb.

"I work hard so I can work on what I think are important solutions to important problems," says Kamen. "And if you succeed at solving those problems, you can make a lot of money."

His latest project has been creating a machine that can produce clean water cheaply.

"In the emerging world, in the under-developed world, a gallon of water is so precious that without it, you're going to die," says Kamen.

"In some places, the average amount of time per day spent looking for water that's safe for their kids by women is four hours. And they carry this stuff, which weighs 62 pounds per cubic foot, four or five miles. And if it didn't turn out to be the right stuff, or they put their hands in it and contaminated it, they spend the next day or two burying the babies."

How did this fit into his work - his vision? He started by making a better energy source for his IBOT. Knowing that batteries weren't going to be capable of carrying enough energy to do what fossil fuels do, he began experimenting with a Stirling engine.

The Stirling engine, named after its designer, Robert Stirling, a 19th Century Scottish minister, is a non-polluting device that plays heat against cold to create energy. It is a closed box with two chambers, one filled with gas. Once heated from the outside, with anything from burning wood chips to charcoal, the gas expands, creating pressure. That pressure drives a piston from the hot chamber into the cool chamber.

In Kamen's design, that mechanical power achieves two goals: It creates electrical power - 300 continuous watts – enough to run a few electrical devices - and, as a bonus, creates enough heat to distill contaminated water, making it drinkable.

Rather and Kamen tested a prototype using water from the polluted Merrimack River near Kamen’s plant. Afterwards, Rather sampled some of the water.

Kamen dreams of using his device all over the world. But is this a realistic goal?

"On the one hand, I cannot represent to you that this is done or that it's even doable with no risk," says Kamen. "I cannot make that representation. But most of the invention that's required to go from the idea to reality, I believe, we've mastered. And we can do this."

"We can do this" may be Kamen's motto, and he wants young people to feel as passionately about what is doable as he does - a curious desire from someone who, by his own admission, was a terrible student. He got bad grades in school.

"I was bewildered by school because they would throw information at you. It was like trying to take a sip from a fire hose," says Kamen.

"I would sit there trying to think about what they said. And I would fixate on something. So, when they'd ask me a question, I wasn't paying attention, because I was thinking about something else. So I'd be accused of daydreaming, which I guess I was doing ... I still daydream. And now, maybe, I like my dreams."

Ironically, Kamen's biggest dream is encouraging kids to stay in school and redirect their goals through an organization called FIRST: For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.

"Look at the role models they see. They see everybody like them as a young adult is either an entertainer or a sports figure," says Kamen.

"Who goes out and says, 'While you have a better probability of winning the state lottery than making a nickel in sports, oh, by the way, last year two million exciting technical jobs went unfilled in this country because you weren't there to take that job. And it pays you 10 times as much as flipping burgers, and it's fun, and it's exciting, and you get to create things and build things and help make the world a better place and help make yourself a better living.' Who tells them this?"

Kamen does.

In 2002, 800 middle and high schools, mostly in the United States, formed teams and entered the annual first competition. Each team was sent an identical package of parts, containing motors, gears and pulleys. And a real-life engineer, volunteering his time, was assigned to each team.

The goal? To design and build a working robot that can accomplish a specific task - this time, scooping up volleyballs and depositing them in a bin. The emphasis here is on creating something both profitable and useful to society.

Teams compete in regional playoffs, and the survivors come each spring to the finals in Disney World, where the festival has all the trappings of a rock concert or sporting event. The prizes include more than $1 million in scholarships.

So how does Kamen want to be remembered?

"I would like to know that I left the world a better place than I found it ... I'd like to think that no matter how much I take out of it, I put more in," says Kamen.

"With 10 billion people on this planet, all trying to have food and water and power, and a standard of living, the only way we're going to do that is if most of those people are contributors and not recipients. These people need to become an educated group that can add to the real value of this world."

Since our last report, the Food and Drug Administration has approved the IBOT powered wheelchair for sale to the public.

And this fall, Dean Kamen has been invited to demonstrate his water-purification machine in Rwanda. The Bush Administration has offered to promote his technology in the rest of Africa, and former President Clinton has invited him to accompany him on a visit to India and Pakistan.

Part I: Kamen's Big Invention