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Inventor Kamen pitches tech for world's poor

Segway inventor Dean Kamen discusses his firm's two "black boxes" that clean water and make power for the developing world. He's still looking for ways to deploy them.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Segway inventor Dean Kamen on Monday detailed two of his design firm's latest projects aimed at the developing world--a water filtration machine and electricity generator that runs on cow dung.

Kamen gave a talk at the Lux Executive Summit here about science and innovation. But he had a clear ulterior motive: convince a room full of technologists to address the "chilling" need for more scientists and engineers to solve the world's worsening problems.

Dean Kamen speaking in Cambridge on Monday. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

"I am scared to death of the way this world is heading," Kamen said. "The best resource (to solve changing problems) is to have problem solvers."

His design firm, Deka Research and Development, has already made a range of products, including the iBot wheelchair and a home dialysis machine.

Kamen said that addressing the basic needs--such as water and power--of the very poorest people would prevent millions of deaths a year and make a huge impact on environmental problems. He said 1.1 billion people don't have access to safe drinking water and 1.6 billion lack access to electricity.

The Deka Stirling Engine, which he called a "black box," converts methane gas from cow dung to electricity. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, 21 times as bad for the environment as carbon dioxide, he said.

Kamen has also outfitted a Stirling engine, which uses heat to expand a gas that moves a piston, into a Think electric town car, which he calls a "Revolt." By using the Stirling engine to trickle charge the battery, it extends the range to 75 miles.

The other black box, Deka's water purifying machine, is about 3 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet and weighs less than 300 pounds.

It doesn't use any filters, activated charcoal or chemicals and will clean "anything that looks like fluid," Kamen said. It can serve about 100 people and needs one kilowatt of electricity to operate. Kamen envisions that the generator and water filtration machine would work together.

He said that the devices are developed to the point that they could be deployed and make a huge impact. However, he said that he has been frustrated because businesses, governments, and non-governmental organizations typically deal with multibillion dollar initiatives, such as on massive public works projects.

"They don't think that little boxes like this is what big organizations do," Kamen said. "It's not the technology, it's the mindset. The 21st century is now stockpiling great technologies but it's going to take, I'm afraid, a long time before people at the top...understand that we got to change the way we do things to get to 4 billion people."

He said that technology will have the most impact addressing environmental and social problems in the poorest people in the world.

"We're sitting here swatting at flies when we are going to get trampled by the elephants. Why don't we use our technology to make the biggest impact?"

In the second half of his talk, Kamen made the case for why engineers and scientists should participate in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which organizes science and technology competitions.

The program is designed so people from industry participate in the competitions, giving children role models in science in technology, not just sports and entertainment.

He argued that children of today will be the ones to address looming problems yet many of them spend their time on frivolous activities, rather than important matters. Kamen also pointed out that education in the U.S. is getting worse; fewer than half of the children from the country's 20 biggest cities graduated from high school.

"If the technology community of this country doesn't very quickly organize, we're going to get what we deserve," he said.