M Trends in Water Treatment Technologies (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2007)
by Ryan Jordan
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Lightweight backpackers are generally well-tuned to current trends in water treatment. The astute backpacker will seize any opportunity to save water weight, because he knows well enough the pain of dragging several liters of water unnecessarily up a wilderness incline pocked with snow melt pools and rivulets of clean mountain water. Likewise, traditional water treatment technologies, such as pump-style water filtration devices, are viewed with some disdain by lightweight hikers who consider the extra half pound or more better spent on carrying more chocolate, an extra insulating layer, whisky, or perhaps, a camp chair.
Water treatment technologies that have rapidly gained affinity by lightweight backpackers are based primarily upon chemical, rather than physical, processes. Certainly, iodine tablets remain the core "ultralight" solution among the mass market, with chlorine dioxide (e.g., Aqua Mira, KlearWater, and MicroPur) rapidly gaining ground on iodine within the ultralight community for its perception of better taste and greater efficacy. In addition, new technologies based upon the electrochemical activation of mixed oxidants (e.g., MSR Miox) and the electrical activation of ultraviolet light (e.g., SteriPen and AquaStar) have gained favor for their ability to appeal to the increasing desire for "cool gadgetry" by modern hikers. In addition, a distinct advantage of UV irradiation technologies is their ability to inactivate protozoan cysts rapidly (on the order of minutes, vs. hours for chemical methods).
The bottom line is that in the past thirty years, our water treatment kits haven't gotten lighter, and in fact, are probably heavier (when you consider the inclusion of gadgetry such as pumps and electrical devices). The question remains whether or not the incidence of intestinal distress has actually decreased with new technology, or whether the media's increasing coverage of water treatment in the past two decades has served only to fuel hikers' desires for more efficacious treatment methods.
Regardless of how contaminated you believe wilderness water to be, or how efficacious you believe your treatment choice to be, there is no doubt that the state of water treatment technologies available to backpackers is in a state of flux relative to what it was three decades ago (when our only options were bleach drops and iodine tablets) or even a decade and a half ago (when we had pump style filters at our disposal).
In the days of iodine and bleach drops, the mechanism by which a microorganism (such as a bacterial cell) was killed included the oxidation of the cell wall/membrane, a process akin to blasting the living nasty with the molecular equivalent of a howitzer. When filtration devices hit the market, the attack was a bit more benign: entrap the little buggers in a porous matrix where they became physically separated from the "clean" water. Chlorine dioxide provided more effective oxidation because it more specifically targeted cellular tissues instead of being consumed by inorganic detritus (e.g., silt particles) and exopolysaccharides (the glue that forms the protective matrix around bacteria in their biofilm mode of growth). UV light is the only technology available that can rapidly inactivate protozoan cysts.
All of these technologies have been available for the past two years, but are not without their limitations. Iodine and bleach impart foul tastes to the water, are less effective in turbid waters, and require abysmally long treatment times to inactivate protozoan cysts; filters clog with sediments, fail to remove viruses, are heavy (in the case of pump filtration systems) or slow to use and/or cumbersome (in the case of gravity filtration systems), and bulky; chlorine dioxide requires two chemicals to be mixed in the field (or uses a premixed solution with a limited shelf life); and UV light requires batteries, are relatively heavy (a quarter pound or more), and limited in their ability to treat large water volumes and/or treat water in a variet of container geometries.
So what do lightweight backpackers want?
Aficionados of filtration devices wish for lighter units capable of pumping water faster. Chemical treatment fans would certainly appreciate the ability to inactivate cysts before dehydration set in while waiting for their water to be treated. UV treatment fans wish for devices that can be used with different bottle types and are lighter.
We can't promise that new technologies announced at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2007 are going to deliver on all of these promises, but the prospects are encouraging, and we are getting ever closer to a holy grail in water treatment.
- Meridian Designs (Aqua Star) mUV
- Highlights: Meridian Designs mUV
- Mountain Safety Research HyperFlow Filter
- Highlights: MSR HyperFlow
- McNett Aqua Mira Frontier Pro Filter
- Highlights: McNett Frontier Pro Filter
- Reliance PUR Chemical Treatment
- Highlights: Reliance PUR
- Future Trends in Backcountry Water Treatment and Practices
- More Resources
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