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Living with water

Nippon Poly-Glu:

Drinkable Water from Anywhere


An assistant brings out a tray of beakers filled with murky, greenish liquid. "It's water from Hibiya Park in Tokyo," Kanetoshi Oda, chairman and CEO of Nippon Poly-Glu Co., Ltd., announces confidently. He sprinkles a bit of pale, whitish powder into one of the beakers and stirs. "The impurities you see here are all made up of negatively charged particles that repel one another. That's why the contaminants remain dispersed throughout the water. So we introduce a pinch of PGα21Ca, which disrupts this tendency to repel."

While Oda stirs patiently, some areas of the green liquid begin to turn clear. After another minute, nebulous, moss-like clumps settle to the bottom of the beaker. Oda then pours the contents into a tall drinking glass, the clumps captured in a filter on the way. He takes a large gulp.

PGα21Ca is a high-polymer flocculant developed from polyglutamic acid (PGA), an amino acid formed by bacterial fermentation. Water-soluble, biodegradable and edible, PGA is responsible for the stickiness of natto, a Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans. Added to water, it acts as a flocculant, a chemical that promotes the separation of solid particles from a liquid. It causes the particles to form loose aggregations, or 'floc,' which then settle to the bottom.

"I've treated 7,000 tons of pond water in Kumamoto Prefecture with the same process in a single day," Oda says. "But the effectiveness of this substance really has to be experienced firsthand."

To produce potable water using PGα21Ca, the source water must be at least clean enough to host life. "Although PGα21Ca has been tested to catch the most harmful impurities like arsenic and E. coli, it's important that people understand that some poisons will still remain intact, no matter how clear the water may seem," Oda warns.

This 73-year-old inventor has now traveled to more than 40 countries to share the benefits of PGα21Ca. However, his inspiration lies closer to home – in the people he saw struggling with rationed water after the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995. "That was when I made up my mind to start researching ways we could transform water anywhere, even from a pond in a public park, into a clean, reliable resource in times of need." Oda spent the next seven years in the lab developing PGα21Ca.
The result has been implemented in products such as the Poly-Glu System IDO (ido is Japanese for 'well'), a simple yet effective water treatment plant that operates without a power source; or the Poly-Glu Rescue Emergency Water Treatment Kit, which requires nothing more than a bucket, a stirring stick, a strainer and a piece of cloth to act as a filter.

Nippon Poly-Glu now provides water treatment assistance all around the world, from responding to requests from the Thai government in the aftermath of 2004's Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake to aiding 700,000 refugees in more than 50 camps across Somalia. Its products have also achieved commercial success in Bangladesh, where they are sold directly to municipalities and individual consumers, while part-time 'Poly-Glu Ladies' act as local researchers, marketers and salespeople.
Nippon Poly-Glu facilities and products require little expert knowledge to use, and by selling directly, the company is able to provide enough PGα21Ca to treat 1,000 liters of water for as little as $1. The company has now touched as many as 70,000 individuals in Bangladesh alone.

Nippon Poly-Glu works hand-in-hand with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Tanzania, and has recently received assistance from Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). It's also working on small-scale efforts such as making inroads into small Buddhist villages in India. In recognition of the benefits PGα21Ca has provided both inside and outside Japan, in October 2013 Oda was presented with the Excellence Award at the Twelfth Japan Innovators' Awards, hosted by Nikkei Business Publications.

"I was often derided for following my passions," Oda says. "Nonetheless, there are some problems that need to be tackled, regardless of the recognition or financial success you can expect to see from their solutions. I truly believe that small Japanese companies like ours have the potential to become formidable forces for good." Oda continues to travel country to country as he strives to create a world where people can have access to safe, clean water wherever they live.

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