Ashok Gadgil: A Legacy of Innovation

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Leaders in Innovation

Ashok Gadgil: A Legacy of Innovation

National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Ashok Gadgil has dedicated his career to inventing ways to help those in need. 

Born in Mumbai (then Bombay), India in 1950, from a young age, Gadgil was fascinated with science and loved tinkering. His parents encouraged his passion and allowed him to have his very own lab.

“My parents were very supportive,” Gadgil said in an interview with NIHF. “They allowed me to tinker and were not excessively afraid that something terrible would happen to me.”

His parents’ trust gave Gadgil the confidence to explore. In his lab, he tested the reactions of different chemicals and sourced materials like zinc and carbon rods from dry cell batteries. He also joined a local hobby club in Mumbai which gave him access to a carpentry shop and mentors who continued encouraging his interests.

“Those experiences surely contributed to developing the sense of what might work,” Gadgil said. “They surely contributed to developing the sense on the physical side of manipulating objects and understanding hydrodynamics.” 

 

UV Waterworks and the Goal of Safe Drinking Water

After earning physics degrees from the University of Mumbai, then known as University of Bombay, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, Gadgil went on to earn both an MA and Ph.D. in physics in 1975 and 1979 respectively from the University of California, Berkeley. Following his studies, he began working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) in the Energy and Environment Technology Division as a Staff Scientist. There he worked on computer programs used to simulate solar heat transfer systems. By 1988 he had returned to India and earned four Indian patents for solar heaters. However, petty politics and bureaucracy made it increasingly difficult for him to develop and apply his ideas for positive societal impact. In response, Gadgil returned to Berkeley Lab that same year and continued working in the field of energy efficiency and indoor air quality.

In 1993, a deadly mutant strain of Bengal cholera began spreading throughout India and during the peak of the epidemic, thousands of people were dying each month. As Gadgil watched the disaster unfold on the news, he had the realization that he could try to do something to help.

“I started saying to myself, ‘I’m at this amazing national lab and there’s so much knowledge at our fingertips, and I should be able to simply do something on evenings and weekends that reliably and affordably disinfects water.’”

Gadgil immediately began working on a solution. Using a multidisciplinary approach and advice from experts across Berkeley’s campus, he designed UV Waterworks, “an effective and inexpensive technology that utilizes ultraviolet (UV) light to kill deadly, disease-causing pathogens.” While UV light had long been used to purify water, Gadgil’s design improved on previous devices by suspending the UV tube above the water to prevent the buildup of algae and bacteria. This new design proved to be so potent and cost-effective that a single device could provide clean drinking water for 1,000 people for as little as $70 a year.  

Today (2019), Gadgil’s technology is used by Water Health International Inc. and provides clean and inexpensive drinking water to between 26 and 29 million people throughout India and Africa.

“It’s really wonderful to go and meet people who use this who use this water and who appreciate what they're able to afford,” Gadgil said.

 

The Berkeley-Darfur Stove

Following the success of UV Waterworks, in 2000 Gadgil set his sights on addressing another water- related crisis, “the largest mass poisoning in recorded history” as the World Health Organization called it in 2002: the disaster of highly toxic levels of arsenic in groundwater used for drinking by rural communities in Bangladesh and nearby parts of India.  Even as he was trying different approaches to solving this problem, another challenge came to his doorstep that he could not refuse: the truly awful living conditions of displaced women refugees in camps in Darfur, a region of western Sudan. Women make up most of the refugee camp population (which was larger than 2 million in 2005), and they often must leave the safety of the camps to forage for firewood. Because of this, they experience the continuous threat of assault.

Following a request by the United States Agency for International Development to help reduce the fuel demands for those living in these refugee camps and thus reduce their exposure to the risk of assault, Gadgil partnered with Global Communities, and later with Oxfam America to invent the Berkeley-Darfur Stove: a portable stove that uses 55% less fuelwood than traditional Darfur cooking methods.

“Having a more fuel-efficient stove in Darfur protects them from having to expose themselves to the risk of violence,” Gadgil said.  He went on to co-found the nonprofit Potential Energy to raise funds for the manufacture, transport and distribution of Berkeley-Darfur stoves in the refugee camps in Darfur.

To date (2018), Potential Energy has distributed over 40,000 stoves to women in Darfur. On average, this increases the household’s disposable income by saving “55% of the fuel compared to traditional stoves, and saves more than three hundred dollars per year” for families in need.

 

A Legacy of Innovation

Throughout his life, Gadgil has championed the importance of inventing creative solutions to aid the developing world. He has found that combining intellectual curiosity with the heart’s desire to care for others creates an unstoppable persistence and drive to not give up. 

“There is an intellectual delight in solving a puzzle and there is your own internal value system reward in having a positive impact on the world,” Gadgil said. “There is the reward for the brain solving the puzzle and the reward for your heart in having a positive impact, and if they align together on the same problem, that keeps you going.”

In recent years, Gadgil has also pioneered ways to remove arsenic from drinking water and holds patents in India and Bangladesh for a highly affordable, effective and robust arsenic removal method. In 2018, he led his team and fellow collaborators in building, commissioning and training local workers to operate a plant that takes in water containing a toxic level (250 ppb) of arsenic and converts it into safe drinking water. This revolutionary arsenic removal system is incredibly cost-effective and for the population of 5,000 that it serves, produces clean water for just 1 U.S. cent per liter.

In addition to his lab work, Gadgil is the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation Chair Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation Senior Faculty Scientist at University of California, Berkeley.  As an educator, he instills the belief that the greatest fulfillment comes from supporting those who need the most help: 

“At some deep level it’s about doing things that are meaningful to us; doing things that bring alignment between our professional life and personal values.”

To learn more about NIHF Inductee Ashok Gadgil and his drive to invent ways to aid those most in need and inspire others to do the same, we invite you to watch the video below!

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