The power of the sun inspired one Maine resident to invent the SteriPEN, a handy gizmo that was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s Top 100 All-Time Gadgets, a list of “the greatest and most influential gadgets from 1923 to the present.”
The SteriPEN, a compact water purifier, is usually found in sports stores, outfitters and airports. And unless you’re an avid traveler or backpacker, you’ve probably never heard of it, even though the company headquarters and research hub is located in Blue Hill.
“It’s listed right there with the Apple iPod and Velcro and the Jarvik artificial heart,” said SteriPEN inventor Miles Maiden during a recent interview. Moreover, online reviewers rated SteriPEN as the No. 1 gadget of the entire list.
Maiden grew up on Cape Cod and graduated from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, where he became interested in solar power.
“I became interested in the ultraviolet side of things,” said Maiden. A dedicated outdoorsman, he started to experiment with how UV light could be used make water safer to drink — water being one of the essentials in enjoying the wilderness.
While working in solar research after college, he invented SteriPEN, a handheld device that uses UV light to purify water. Soon after, he founded Hydro Photon Inc. in 1997, and today he acts as the company’s CEO and chief technology officer.
The SteriPEN looks like a chunky pen, but when you take off the cap and turn it on, it’s more like a miniature Star Wars light saber, which has intimidated more than a few rugged outdoorsmen.
The device may seem high-tech, but UV technology has been used to purify water for more than 100 years and is currently used to purify drinking water in some of the largest cities in the world. Furthermore, SteriPEN products has received the Water Quality Association’s Gold Seal.
To purify water, just stick the wand in a bottle of water and stir it around for about a minute (the amount of time depends on the model and the amount of water you’re purifying). The UV rays destroy 99.9 percent of bacteria, viruses and protozoan cysts such as giardia and cryptosporidium, which can make people dangerously sick if ingested.
“I’ve spent a fair bit of time in parts of the world where you really wouldn’t think to drink the water out of the tap. So it’s been very handy in those types of places,” said Maiden, who continues to bring SteriPEN models on hiking and camping trips despite his busy schedule.
As stated on the SteriPEN website, only three-tenths of one percent of the Earth’s water can be used by humans. Other ways to improve water quality include chemical treatment and filtration.
“If I look at the alternatives, drinking active chemicals, to me, isn’t something I personally want to do,” Maiden said.
Also, chemical treatments sometimes don’t kill cryptosporidium and giardia, which have thick shells. UV light kills them easily, said Maiden. “And you don’t end up with something that tastes like a swimming pool,” he added.
And while quality water filtration units do get rid of microbes and cysts, smaller viruses slip right through filters. SteriPEN, on the other hand, attacks viruses with photons. In other words, it destroys viruses regardless of size.
For more than a decade, the company has continued to grow. For Maiden, innovation means increasing functionality and lowering the cost of his products. Over the years, he has released several SteriPEN models to fit the needs and budgets of a variety of travelers and outdoor enthusiasts.
The Classic SteriPEN, once priced at about $100, now costs just $60. Then there is the Sidewinder, powered by a crank; the Journey, with a LCD screen with an automatic timer and battery reader; the Traveler, which fits into commercial water bottles; and the 3.6-ounce Adventurer Opti, with a water sensor and LED flashlight. This tiny device won “Editor Choice 2011” in “Backpacker Magazine.”
But it’s the recently released SteriPEN Freedom that steals the spotlight and has earned a spot in “Gear of the Year 2011” by “Men’s Journal.” It is the lightest, smallest and most technologically advanced SteriPEN yet. At 5.1 inches long, it weighs in at 2.6 ounces. It can be charged by a USB cable, like a cellphone, or can be solar charged. And it doesn’t require buttons because it’s motion-activated. And it was all designed by his talented crew in Blue Hill.
But Maiden isn’t willing to pause and bask in the company’s recent success.
“I think in the future we’ll be looking at incorporating a wider range of treatments so we can also remove the turbidity in water as well and address chemical contaminants,” he said.
And Hydro-Photon Inc. is already pioneering technology involving light-emitting diodes, more commonly known as LEDs.
“LEDs are really neat devices for a whole bunch of reasons — you probably know them from flashlights. But ultraviolet LEDs are being developed and still aren’t ready for the commercial world,” Maiden said.
In 2004, Hydro-Photon Inc. became the first company in the world to show an effective use of ultraviolet LEDs in water purification. Though usually they conduct all research in-house, they worked with the University of Maine in the LED research, funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. Maiden predicts that LEDs will eventually displace ultraviolet lamps because of their low cost and higher efficiency.
And the majority of product testing has been conducted A & L Laboratory in Auburn, and University of Maine labs in Orono and Portland. While the company’s retail products are manufactured overseas, their new military models are made at Elscott Manufacturing in Gouldsboro, or “right down the road,” as Maiden put it. The two army-green SteriPENs are called the Defender and the Protector.
Though the SteriPEN is now sold in more than 60 countries, Maiden has remained in Maine, where his fascination with the sun’s power was cultivated.
For information, visit www.steripen.com.