Ashok Gadgil Inducted into National Inventor’s Hall of Fame

June 4, 2014

Ashok Gadgil, inventor of UV Waterworks, the Darfur stove and other low-cost, energy-efficient technologies for the developing world, has been inducted into the class of 2014 National Inventor’s Hall of Fame (NIHF) in Washington D.C. The induction ceremony took place at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on May 21, in presence of many prior inductees, several industry sponsors, and senior staff from USPTO, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Gadgil is one of five living inventors inducted in this class of 15 inductees. The five include the inventors of 3-D printing, new methods of synthesizing biologically useful proteins, and carbon nanomaterials. Gadgil is the Director of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. The National Inventor’s Hall of Fame is part of the USPTO.

Gadgil was recognized by the Hall for work that “has helped 100 million people across four continents by making water safe to drink and by increasing the energy efficiency of stoves.”

“What is unique about my inclusion in this remarkable group of inventors is the recognition of value in humanitarian aspects and impacts of my inventions,” says Gadgil, “which apply science, technology, and creativity for scalable solutions to some problems of the poorest three billion people on the planet. I am pleased that USPTO signaled that they consider this purpose of inventing as important as the purely corporate or scientific ones.”

Of the more than eight million total patents issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office, inventors of only 10 to 12 patents are annually elected to the NIHF. About 500 individuals (living and dead) are inductees in the NIHF over the past 42 years of selection. Earlier NIHF inductees who worked at the Berkeley Lab include Charles Towns, Louis Alvarez and Ernest Orlando Lawrence.

UV Waterworks Improves Drinking Water Sanitation

Gadgil began working in 1993, on the invention that was eventually named UV Waterworks after learning about a cholera epidemic in India that killed tens of thousands. According to the World Health Organization, 1.2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and they suffer more than 2 million deaths per year—mostly of children under 5—from waterborne diseases.

Using ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, such as the organisms that cause cholera, in water, a UV Waterworks device can provide safe drinking water for a village of 2,000, disinfecting four gallons per minute. Using only 60 watts of electricity, which could be obtained by a solar panel, the cost of disinfection is 4 cents per metric ton. With no moving parts, the device is simple, robust and designed to be fail-safe. A volume of water passes under the UV lamp in the device every 12 seconds.

Gadgil decided to patent the device on the advice of Berkeley Lab’s Technology Transfer Office, in order to combat the proliferation of technically inferior copies, and allow for a small start up to take the risk of commercializing the technology. A California start up, WaterHealth International (WHI), obtained an exclusive license from Berkeley Lab to manufacture and sell the device in the developing world. WHI maintains quality control of the technology and sets up water disinfection installations in villages on a turn-key basis. They train local technicians to maintain the equipment, and the local installation manager sells the water a price of 0.2 cents per liter (prices can vary somewhat depending on local salaries and other costs). Sale of the water pays for the cost and maintenance of the installation, salaries of two part-time local employees, public health outreach and education in the community, and the running of WHI including its business margins.

By 2012, there were more than five million people being served affordable safe water in India, Bangladesh, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and the Philippines. Clean water from these stations is estimated to be saving around 1,000 lives per year. The technology, together with a system of distribution that ensures the proper manufacture, distribution, and operation of the system helps provide not only affordable clean water critical to good community health, but also, employment and local economic stimulus.

Energy-efficient Cookstoves for Darfur and Beyond

About three billion people throughout the world cook their meals using solid fuels, on low-efficiency polluting stoves. The collection of wood imposes a large burden of labor and time – mostly on women and girls, and the exposure to the smoke from cooking is now recognized to be the single largest environmental threat to human health, prematurely killing four million people annually.

In 2005 Gadgil’s attention was drawn by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to the plight of women in camps for internally displaced people, in Darfur Sudan. At that time women would walk on the average seven hours a trip, every other day, foraging for fuelwood to cook their families meals, and be at risk for assault while outside of these camps. Based on his analysis of the situation, Gadgil determined that a robust, user-friendly, affordable, and fuel-efficient wood-burning stove could offer substantial relief to the women from their hardship, and risk of violence and extreme humiliation.

Visiting the conflict-torn region several times over a period of years, Gadgil and his team studied local conditions and the needs of the families in Darfur, and developed and field-tested a design for an energy-efficient stove made of sheet metal that could be assembled locally. The design evolved with carefully collected input from women cooks—stove users in the Darfur camps, and currently costs about $20, while saving $345 per year in fuelwood costs. (A large fraction of the camp population in North Darfur has stopped trying to collect wood, since the nearest supply is now mostly farther than a day’s walk. Instead, they spend their precious family income to purchase fuelwood from middlemen). Lasting more than five years, each stove saves $1,725 in fuelwood costs over its lifetime, reduces the household expenditure on fuelwood from 30% to 15%, and incidentally reduces the emissions of greenhouse gases by two metric tons annually.

As with the development of the UV Waterworks device, development of the Darfur stove technology by itself was not end of the process—distributing and proliferating the technology to those who needed it required additional ingenuity. Working with non-governmental organization partners in Darfur, the stoves team set up a supply, manufacturing and distribution chain. Sheet metal parts are precision-cut at a factory in India and shipped as flat kits to Darfur, where they are assembled into stoves by trained local displaced persons—which means jobs for the local community, the creation of skills, and a local light manufacturing economy. The distribution chain is optimized to make the manufacturing of stoves as low-cast as possible without requiring the high start-up costs of building stoves from scratch in Darfur or nearby regions.

While stoves continue to be given free of cost to households in the displaced persons’ camps, families outside the camps are now offered the stoves at an affordable price, the $20 it takes to manufacture one. The savings in fuelwood costs lightens their economic burden as well as reduces the exposure to danger of women gathering fuelwood outside the camps’ borders. As of early 2014, 37,500 stoves were in households in the hands of women in Darfur—worth $60 million in reduced fuel wood costs—and were helping 200,000 internally displaced people in these households.

The effort to manage the supply chain, and deliver the tens of thousands of energy-efficient stoves, moved into a non-profit organization called Potential Energy co-founded by Gadgil in 2008. With funding from USAID, this non-profit is now testing a fuel-efficient stove for Ethiopia, earlier developed at Berkeley Lab with funding support from the Department of Energy. Ethiopia’s forest cover has declined from 50 percent of the country’s area in 1960 to less than five percent today, and yet 80 percent of households there still cook using wood fires.

Other Projects from Gadgil’s Laboratory

Gadgil and his team invented, and now are field-testing a technology to remove naturally occurring arsenic from drinking water. Bangladesh, parts of India, and other areas of the world get drinking water from wells contaminated with high levels of arsenic from the local geology. Over time, drinking this contaminated water poisons inhabitants, causing arsenicosis, cancer and other deadly maladies. More than 70 million in Bangladesh get their drinking water from arsenic-contaminated wells—the largest mass poisoning in human history.

Gadgil’s research team has developed a simple, robust, and inexpensive technology for removing arsenic from water that uses a small amount of low-voltage electricity and iron electrodes to effectively remove arsenic from water. ECAR (ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation) removes arsenic and purifies water to better than WHO standards at a cost (including capital and consumable supplies) of about 0.08 cents per liter. It is a low maintenance device that produces very little waste. In 2012, ECAR was tested successfully in the field in West Bengal India. An Indian water company licensed it from Berkeley Lab in late 2013. With funding support from the Development Impact Lab, part of the USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network, at UC Berkeley, Gadgil’s team is now working with the licensee company, Jadavpur University (Kolkata, India), and local governments and NGOs in India, to further develop the technology through a large-scale field installation to be operated over several months. They hope that a distribution system along the lines of UV Waterworks could disseminate affordable arsenic-safe water in the region, using ECAR technology.

“It is quite amazing,” says Gadgil, “that with the extraordinary science and technology at our fingertips at Berkeley, we are able to develop locally affordable and highly effective solutions to some of the desperate problems of large numbers of poorest people on the planet.” He adds, “It is also deeply satisfying to see the impact achievable by keeping in mind the need of a scalable business model, and respectful accommodation with local social norms and cultural preferences.”


Allan Chen