We’ve all encountered books we couldn’t help but devour, and some of them – James Joyce, Ayn Rand, David Foster Wallace – even made us break a sweat. Until now, however, there’s never been a manuscript we could actually gulp. Enter The Drinkable Book, a tome stuffed not with memorable characters and hairpin plot twists, but with pages treated with antimicrobial paper filters powerful enough to purify disease-contaminated water in the rural communities of Northern Ghana, Haiti, Kenya, and India.
The brainchild of Dr. Theresa Dankovich, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, The Drinkable Book will be distributed globally in developing nations next year by Water Is Life, a nonprofit organization devoted to developing and providing clean water technologies to the 1.1-billion people worldwide surviving, if barely, on less than 8-ounces of clean water each day.
The book, about the size of a traditional hardcover novel, is filled with pages specially treated with inexpensive, benign nanoparticles that remove toxins, bacteria, and viruses, each page generating enough safe drinking water for one person to consume each day. The pages also contain important text, printed in food-grade ink, covering basic hygiene, sanitation, and clean water practices in a variety of world languages. “A lot of the education and information we’re raised with – things like ‘wash your hands regularly,’ ‘don’t drink from a still water supply’ – other cultures have never learned,” says Dankovich, who began developing her project in early 2009 at McGill University, where she earned her PhD in Chemistry. “Education is always the first step to lasting change and improvement, so I’m very happy that there is useful information in the book.”
To prepare clean water, a page is torn from The Drinkable Book and used as a filter, the contaminated water being run quickly through the book’s page to remove all toxins. “The idea is: one book equals one year of drinking water for a person,” says Dankovich.
The Drinkable Book is inexpensive to manufacture, with the highest material expense being the paper itself (about 10-cents per page, Dankovich estimates). “I’m fully supportive of any technology that’s going to improve people’s health,” she says, acknowledging that chlorine tablets and ceramic filters are sometimes used to clean water supplies in developing countries. “What I’m really excited about is how affordable and simple this technology is.”
Now in her early 30s, Dankovich was as a child deeply inspired by a storybook biography of pioneering physicist/chemist Marie Curie, which led to her pre-teen purchase of a junior microscope. “The microscope wasn’t as powerful as a scientist would really use, but it was a pretty powerful magnifier, and it gave me a different perspective on things,” she says. “I really liked that. I’ve just always found the natural world so interesting.”
In her teen years, Dankovich worked often with her hands, taking things apart and reassembling them, learning how things work. “Working in the lab is just a natural extension of that. The tools are a lot fancier, but you’re still going through a creative process of how does this work, how is it put together, how could it work better?”
While at McGill, Dankovich connected with a Montreal-based scientific network called Sentinel Bioactive Paper, endeavoring to create anti-microbial paper. Most of the work on The Drinkable Book was, she says, done “independently, in a lab, by myself” once she relocated to University of Virginia for additional post-doctoral work.
The years of lab work were about finding the proper balance of benign chemical ingredients to completely neutralize waterborne bacteria 100-percent of the time, then matching it to a durable, sustainable, affordable paper via nanotechnology. “There’s a lot of trial and error in science – which most of us call ‘the research phase,’” Dankovich laughs.
Dankovich cherishes the moment when she realized, beyond a shadow of doubt, that her technology, dubbed pAge Drinking Paper, worked. “After experimenting for years, I knew this worked. I knew it worked one time. I knew it worked two times. But sometimes there are experimental errors or just, like, flukes,” she says. One night in 2009, Dankovich prepped water samples in Petri dishes in her lab for overnight incubation, as she did almost every night, and thought to herself, “This should work. We’ll see.”
Indeed, it did. The following morning, Dankovich found that no bacterial colonies had formed in her samples, that her paper filter had been, at last, 100% effective and on an infinitely replicable level. “The Petri dishes were clean. Completely clean,” she says. “That was probably the most exciting moment for me.”
Dankovich knew the next phase was taking her show on the road, her “hundreds of lab tests” now yielding to extensive field-testing. With a small crew of students from University of Virginia, Dankovich set about collecting water samples from around the world to see if her tech would hold up against some of nature’s more ferocious waterborne contagions. “We went to South Africa. We went to Ghana,” she says. “You have to test in places where people are actually relying on this water for drinking. It’s one thing to work properly in a lab, and its something else to be effective everywhere.”
Dankovich was thrilled at how the paper “quite effectively” killed bacteria in actual community water sources in South Africa, her determination to harness the technology in a way that is simple, inexpensive, mass-producible, and easily accessed reaffirmed. Meeting her end users face to face was also a transformative experience for the young scientist. “The quiet, inward experiences of lab work became quickly replaced with a more community experience, and it became so clear to me: these people are, literally, dying for the technology that I am doing my best to accomplish,” she says. “It’s one thing to be in a lab, doing your little experiments, and it’s so enormous to meet people in the world who are actually counting on what you’re doing to change their lives.”
Shortly after Dankovich’s successful tests around the globe, she received a surprise email from a partner at award-winning, vanguard advertising agency DDB, which has produced a series of headline-grabbing short films and viral videos for Water Is Life, a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 by Ken Surritte. One of Water Is Life's highest profile successes to date is the creation and distribution of The Straw, a lightweight, 10-inch long drinking utensil outfitted with a powerful double-filtration system durable enough to provide a single user with clean drinking water for one year. At a cost of only $10 per unit, Surritte and Water Is Life have given away nearly 70,000 Straws to water-deprived communities in developing countries.
“When I got that email, which I never could have expected, I’d been trying to figure out how to move forward with my project. It was, ‘Okay, I know this works. Now how do I get it out into the world?’” she remembers. “DDB introduced me to Water Is Life, and I knew that was the perfect match.”
Since late 2013, Water Is Life has deployed its resources and volunteers to do additional field-testing on Dankovich’s technology with consistently positive results. “They’re basically gathering more data to make sure this product is really the very best it can be,” Dankovich says. “We want to make sure The Drinkable Book is something that everyone can use, that its easy to use, that people like to use it, and that it always works. I think we’ve got these things figured out.”
Dankovich and Water Is Life anticipate a 2015 launch of the product, which will be made possible by donations made to the nonprofit. Dankovich is uncertain how expensive it will be to produce and distribute The Drinkable Book, but hopes it will be in the price range of The Straw. This fall, Surritte unveiled The Drinkable Book at Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, where more than 275,000 guests from 100 countries gathered for first-looks at forthcoming bestsellers marquee authors like Nicholas Sparks, John Grisham, and Anne Rice.
“I’ve always loved books, so the idea that this technology that will save lives will be available as a book is something I really love,” says Dankovich, who smiles when it is suggested that if all one billion people who need The Drinkable Book actually receive one, her volume could become one of the bestsellers in world history.
“I’ve always felt motivated to do something good in the world, for whatever reason, and I’ve always kind of leaned toward environmental-type projects, so all of this is really just so amazing to me,” Dankovich says. “It’s hard to believe sometimes that people are going to be actually using this next year and that it will actually save lives. That’s kind of a dream to me.”