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Monday, April 6

The Tale of How Argonaut Villager Was Invented

American engineer Tom Waite, inventor of Argonaut portable water purifier and CEO of Argonaut Water and Ethiopia's Prince Emmias Sahle-Selassi Haile-Selassie, intellectual powerhouse behind Water Initiative for Africa

This is a long story so I'll summarize how it started.  It was Gregory R. Copley, the defense analyst, who was the inspiration for the invention of the Argonaut.  In one sentence the way this happened was that during talks in 2011 with people at US Special Operations Command and US Africa Command, Copley somehow got it fixed in his mind that these commands were interested in his theory that you couldn't win a war if 98 percent of your battle strategy was consumed with hauling 35 percent of the world's fast foods, diesel fuel and bottled water to the combat zone each week.

Actually it wasn't a bad strategy if NATO didn't want to bomb Rawalpindi and Riyadh; it kept thousands of Taliban busy in Pakistan robbing supply convoys instead of setting IEDs in Afghanistan.  

This plus the fact that the objective wasn't to win the war, as I have explained more than once on this blog and quite wonderfully if I do say so.  The major objective was to provide training in modern urban combat and counterterrorism tactics for troops in scores of ISAF countries where governments were too cheap or poor to retool their militaries for the modern era.  The secondary objective was to forge good coordination between NATO commands under battlefield conditions as part of upgrading the alliance to a global constabulary force. 

Nonetheless, possessed of his quaint notion that wars are to be won and logistical operations don't equate to battle strategy, Copley went to his friend Tom Waite and said why not invent a really workable and portable water purifier for these troops?

For the details up to this point go to the beginning of the tale, which Copley wrote in April 2013 for Oil Price; it's titled Water: the Key to a Strategic Victory in Any Conflict. To pick up the thread:
By early 2012, Tom and his team at StrAPS, working with ISSA, had produced a small, lunchbox-sized backpack system, weighing eight pounds (3.628 kg), capable of producing two US gallons (7.57 liters) of water a minute, powered by a small (90 Watt) fold-out solar blanket.
It could create enough water to satisfy a company of troops or more, especially if the solar blanket was also used — while pumping water — to charge a small battery (such as the ubiquitous US military BB-295 or something similar) which could then power the unit through the hours of darkness.

Finally, something small enough to be carried by a single soldier which could replace the lumbering [reverse osmosis] vehicle, and yet not make demands on the [military] supply chain. Logistics, this writer has long averred, is part of the process, not the solution in itself.
All through the process, another ISSA Senior Fellow, His Imperial Highness Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie (also President of the Crown Council of Ethiopia), had been observing the development of what we now called the Argonaut water purification technology.
He said repeatedly: “We must have Argonaut systems in every African community. We must have clean water supply not reliant on urban infrastructure, ongoing maintenance, and diesel fuel. This is the foundation of all successful societies: to have clean water. Nothing succeeds without it.”
Right.  And I think by then it had dawned on Copley and Waite that it was a training tradition in the American military to drop crates of plastic water bottles from helicopters.  In any event either the two grabbed the lifeline His Highness threw them, or confronted the distinct possibility that they'd blown a big chunk of their retirement funds on financing the invention of a pipe dream.  

However this meant that after engineering the Argonaut into a backpack, the contraption had to be reverse engineered.  What took the sting out of the chore was the two men's growing appreciation of just how important the new project was:  
Tom Waite then began scaling up the technology which he had developed and had so focused on miniaturizing. He developed the Argonaut Villager system, still eminently transportable at — depending on configuration — around 150 lb. weight, but capable of producing a constant 16 gallons (60.566 liters) per minute stream of water, purified to that still unique level of 0.01 microns. That’s more than 87,000 liters per day, enough to supply a town of more than 4,000 people. Or a pretty heavy military base.
Moreover, in looking at the modalities of water logistics, what was evident was that the amount of time spent by village women in developing countries around the world each day fetching impure water from wells, and rivers, and lakes consumed the equivalent manhours to build 28 Empire State Buildings a day.
More than that, in many areas, walking the long distances to bring water home involved vulnerabilities to attack (witness the Darfur scenario), and, when acquired, the water needed to be boiled to reduce the risk of disease. To do that necessitated the gathering of wood, often from areas already facing aridity or desertification. But to avoid disease, the countryside had to be lain waste.
Solar-powered Argonaut Villager units could operate in remote areas, without maintenance or fuel, and alleviate the need to burn wood or fossil fuels; they could provide not only pure water for drinking, but for drip-feed irrigated agriculture (500 times more efficient than open channel irrigation), enabling village vegetable and fruit production.
One spin-off from the ISSA-StrAPS collaboration, then, was the creation by Prince Ermias of the Water Initiative for Africa (WIA), which began in late 2011 to use the Argonaut technology as the basis for creating a new approach to building the basics of community health and security in Africa.
I've cut off the story at that point because to my jaded mind the next sentences could portend an ominous turn in the tale.  The Water Initiative for Africa began to draw the attention of the ngo "welfare community," as Copley put it, and government aid programs, and -- military organizations bent on humanitarian works.

Maybe tonight I'll chug-a-lug three shots of moonshine so I can read the rest while I'm already flat on my back.  But I do note from glancing a bit forward in the writing a mention about cost:

"[T]he new Argonaut systems can purify water for about one-ten-thousandth of a US cent per gallon over a decade-long lifespan for the unit."

The next thing is to learn how much those Villager units cost; I'll have to look into the literature. And also how well they've been faring in African villages.  For now, it's time to watch Tom Waite demonstrate how the Argonaut Villager works, or watch again if you saw my last post.  I hope readers, in India in particular, take notes.

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