Introduction: Pocket Sized Water Sterilizer

Picture of Pocket Sized Water Sterilizer

It sounds like magic, but it's just electrochemistry. All you need is a pencil, some titanium wire, and a battery to start purifying water. The voltage between the graphite and the titanium converts H2O and a little table salt (NaCl) into NaClO, sodium hypochlorite, also known as bleach. Run the reaction for a few minutes, and it will start to smell like a pool, and the bleach will kill off the bacteria in the water. For all chlorine-based water purifying products, it's good to wait at least 30 minutes for the chlorine to do its work. If you wait longer, the chlorine decomposes back into NaCl and oxygen.

Step 1: Review Other Water Purifying Systems

Picture of Review Other Water Purifying Systems

I've shown several choices of water purifying systems here. The purifying pen by MSR uses the exact same electrochemical technique as the one I described. I am told it is used by the military for emergency water purifying. It's very effective and purifies a lot of water. Since it's not on the market any more, you might want to build one using the instructions I've developed.

Step 2: Scared of Chlorine?

Picture of Scared of Chlorine?

If you're worried about the health effects of drinking chlorine bleached water, then don't drink tap water. Every town and every city purifies its water the same way, by this electrochemical process. They have fancy industrial sized reactors for this Chloro-alkali process, but it's fundamentally the same. That said, if you make chlorine using the process I describe, it is not approved by the NSF or the FDA or anything, so you would be drinking it at your own risk. I'll mention some hazards later.

Step 3: How Does It Work?

Picture of How Does It Work?

This graphic shows the reactions that take place in the electrochemical cell. We want the HClO, (or HOCl, same thing), called "sodium hypochlorite", or "bleach". Or maybe NaClO. Doesn't matter. You put the positive terminal of the battery on the graphite and the negative terminal on the titanium. Some other metals may work, but if you just pick a random wire, it will spew out yellow crap in the water when you apply the voltage, and you will get no chlorine bleach at all.

The yellow stuff might be oxidized iron or ferric chloride, which is a strong acid. Even though you made it from harmless ingredients, it's a harmful chemical, so don't touch it. Same goes for breathing it in. You can gently waft your hand above your reaction to smell it. Don't put your face right in it. Wear safety goggles and nitrile gloves.

So go on Amazon and buy some titanium wire. It's not expensive, and with steel wire or whatever you have lying around it's not going to work. The titanium is not used up in the reaction; a short piece will last you forever. For the electrode geometry, I first wind the titanium around the pencil to make a spring-like shape. Then I remove the titanium and carefully split the pencil down the middle, exposing the graphite. Then I can put the titanium wire back on the pencil without letting it touch the graphite. It's just touching the wooden part. The graphite and the wire are dry above the beaker, so I can connect the battery up there. I hold the contacts by pressing the wire and graphite to the terminals of the battery. Alligator clips and stuff would work too. Don't get the contacts or the battery wet.

You can see in the graph at the left that current doesn't flow unless you have at least some salt (NaCl) and at least ~4.5 volts, which is 3 AA batteries in series. You can do this by taping them back to back. Alternatively, you can buy a 9 volt battery and your life will be a little easier. Be careful not to get the battery terminals wet and not to shock yourself with the battery. Also don't mix up the terminals. As shown in the picture, put the positive terminal of the battery on the graphite, and the negative on the titanium. If you reverse it, sometimes the titanium changes color from silver to orange to purple. It's super cool, but not helpful.

For a preliminary test, just dump a spoonful of salt into a cup and do the reaction. It should proceed very rapidly and smell like a pool in no time. When it smells like a pool, I think that's around 5 ppm (parts per million) Chlorine, which is 5 times as much as is used in drinking water. When it smells like this, stop the reaction. You don't want it to go too far, because it can get very smelly. Like, to the point where just a whiff makes your eyes water, your throat burn for hours, and severe nausea. I've been there, and I absolutely do not recommend it.

Okay, now you've done your preliminary test, the next instructions will make sense.

Step 4: How Long to Run Your Reaction

Picture of How Long to Run Your Reaction

Depending on the voltage you have available and the salt concentration you put in, the reaction will take a different amount of time to produce the same amount of chlorine bleach. This graph shows how long to leave it running to get to 1 ppm bleach, which should be enough for drinking water purifying.

You might say, oh, let's go fast, using high salt concentration and high voltage! But that's bad for two reasons. First, very high salt concentration will mean it's too salty to drink. More on that later. High voltage means you're wasting some energy, both due to overpotential and loss reactions, such as the formation of hydrogen and oxygen gas. That's right, this reaction produces explosive gas in the presence of a battery (read: ignition source). The amount of gas is extremely small, though, so as long as your container is open to air and the reaction is not left unattended for like an hour, it should be okay. I never had a problem with it. But you do it at your own risk.

For a voltage source, if you don't have a battery, a standard AC/DC converter usually works. Sometimes they are called wall warts, cell phone chargers, or power supplies for appliances, and it looks like a black box with two cords coming out. One cord goes to the wall, and the other sometimes has a DC voltage. You can read the box to see if it says it is converting to DC, which is what you want. Anything above 4.5 V will work. To connect the wire to your electrodes (the graphite and the titanium), you will have to cut and strip the DC wire and make contacts. Alligator clips make this convenient, but it is very easy to accidentally connect the positive and negative terminals, which generates a lot of current and can blow out your device or cause fire or injury. You can use electrical tape around exposed connections to avoid short circuits.

So you have this graph for how long to run the reaction, and you have some voltage source. But you need to know how much salt to put in. This image from Wikipedia shows the amount of salt in water. It's extremely hard to find any resources for how much salt the body can take. It probably depends on the other foods you eat. One solution to the problem is to produce the bleach in a small container, such as a shot glass, with 1 ppt salt (which means for 1 gram of water you want 0.001 grams of salt). Run the reaction for as long as the graph says for 1 liter. Then dump the contents into the liter bottle, and the salt concentration will be almost zero while the bleach concentration will be appropriate for 1 liter.

Then of course you need to mix it up to make sure the bleach gets around in your liter bottle. Leave it for at least 30 minutes for the bleach to kill the bacteria. Then if you leave the 1 liter (or quart) container open for some time, especially in the sun, the bleach will gradually decompose back into NaCl and oxygen, which will improve the taste.

Here are simplified instructions for a 9V battery, using the 1ppt dilution trick.

1. Wrap 12" of titanium wire around a pencil to form a spring-like shape

2. Take the titanium off the pencil, carefully keeping the spring-like shape

3. Split the pencil down the middle. If it is a cheap pencil, the graphite will break, and you will have to start over. Experiment with several brands of pencil until you get one that works. Offset cutters or diagonal cutting pliers are fairly good tools for this job.

4. Carefully put the titanium spring back on the pencil, so that it touches only the wood, not the graphite. Unwind a little titanium up near the back of the pencil for making electrical contact to the battery.

5. Prepare the solution. Get a half cup measure (120mL) and put 0.1 gram of salt (0.02 teaspoons, just a pinch) in and fill it with water. Mix it in. That's about 1ppt.

6. On the chart, you see at 9V and 1 ppt salt it should take less than 10 seconds. With the bottom of the pencil (with the titanium) in the salt water, put the positive terminal of the battery on the graphite and the negative terminal on the titanium. You may have to press hard to achieve good electrical contact. You may see a small spark. If you're hands are wet, you may feel a shock and get burned. Maybe you want to switch to alligator clips for your connections. You can tell it is running because tiny bubbles form on the electrodes. If the bubbles do not form, check your connections and maybe add a little more salt. Run the reaction for at least 10 seconds, maybe make it 20. You should start to smell the chlorine like a pool if you wait longer, like 1 minute.

7. Dump the contents of your little half-cup into a 1 liter or 1 quart bottle full of water that might have germs in it. Mixing it up dilutes the salt, so now it has only 0.1ppt salt, which is definitely fresh enough to drink. Wait 30 minutes for all the bacteria to die. Leave the container open in the sun for a while to improve the taste.

8. You can reuse the same battery and the same electrodes again and again until you stop seeing the bubbles form during the reaction. This indicates the battery is dead and needs replacing. One 9V battery should purify 698 liters of water! Obviously if you let it run for twice as long, or put in twice as much salt, you will produce more bleach concentration and you'll get half as many liters out of the same battery.

Specifically, the calculation is:

(.500 Ah*3600C/Ah)/(1.29C/L(coulombs per liter purified)*2(safety factor)) = 698 Liters

Tadaa, you have purified water! That said, this product is not certified by NSF or FDA or anyone else, including me, for use in any purpose whatever. Why am I so cautious? Have a look at some of the hazards of the chloro-alkali process on the next page.

Step 5: Hazards

Picture of Hazards

As you can see, mixing the bleach with acid, ammonia, or organic materials creates very harmful products. This is significant, considering that the application is the wilderness. Suppose some animal (or human) has urinated near the drinking water. Well that will contribute some ammonia, and that will react with the bleach to make chloramines, which are harmful to the lungs. Or maybe there's some acid from a nearby fruit or acid rain; then you might have chlorine gas on your hands, which was used as a chemical weapon in the world wars. Or if you leave the reaction running too long, you may have more fully oxidized chlorine compounds, some of which are explosive, and which are in general very high pH, which can burn your skin like an acid burn.

There are some ways to catalyze the decomposition of these products, such as with ruthenium oxide, but that is kind of a stretch for the household experiment or survivalist kit. In fact, this tutorial is a little bit advanced, and if you've made it this far, you probably learned something about electrochemistry. As if you haven't had enough already, I put a short list of some links and papers you might read more about the Chloro-alkali process.


Samuel Aplin (author)2014-10-01

Just saying but that also produces chlorine gas also known as mustered gas think ww2

TonyM152 (author)Samuel Aplin2016-06-16

Chlorine gas is a different substance from mustard gas...that's like saying a goat is also known as a sheep...

bmêttź (author)Samuel Aplin2015-05-15

Can you please provide footnotes for mustard gas being chlorine based and used during ww2?

Buddy it was world war one. Hitler got hit with mustard gas and didn't want to use gas or biological weapons against the allies in. ww2

Kiteman (author)Samuel Aplin2014-10-03

Mustard gas is a very different substance to chlorine gas, and this device produces very little, if any, free chlorine (it dissolves very quickly in water).

You'd be more at risk from chlorine walking briskly past a public swimming pool.

rvrfinn (author)2015-07-16

An interesting idea. Though for my part, I think that I agree with previous comments that this is more of a kid's chemistry experiment than a practical solution for water purification. My favorite method for water purification on the trail is aquamira drops. Very effective, little/no taste or smell to the treated water, and they are very compact and lightweight (think a bottle of eye drops.) They have the benefit of being tested and having specific measures and wait time instructions. This contraption would be a roll of the dice as to whether you'd waited enough, or if the solution was strong enough. Also bleach doesn't kill the giardia cysts that infect so many hikers/campers. so it's a good idea to carry a water filter with a pore size of one micron or less. They can be remarkably compact and lightweight and well worth the expense and ounces in takes to save yourself the misery.

fortin (author)rvrfinn2016-05-17

i found this water purifying system the other day.

they basically use the same principal in a small package and they claim that it kill Giardia. But your are totally right as not being practical because you don t know if you made enough or too much.

but still a Great Instructables tough !!!

Tlaci18 (author)2016-03-17

Hi, thank you very much for this instructable. I would like to know, what types of titanium wires I could use.

I found this one, but I don't know which GA should I choose, if it is the right type of wire of course :)

MaxM2 (author)Tlaci182016-03-18

Yes I think that wire will work. For the gauge (GA), choose a wire so that its overall resistance is around 0.1 ohm or lower for a length of 10 cm. I saw on one ebay listing the following data for titanium wire: "26 Gauge AWG: 0.40mm - Resistance: 0.14 Ohms/meter at room temperature". We can calculate the expected resistance for 10 cm of wire using this formula: (0.14 ohms/100cm)*10cm = 0.014 ohm, so this will do the job. A wide variety of wire gauges will work. Just beware that anything thickher than around 14 gauge (lower gauge number means thicker) the wire starts to get difficult to bend. Does this answer the question?

Tlaci18 (author)MaxM22016-03-20

Absolutely, thank your very much for your help :)

MaxM2 (author)2015-12-12

You're right, someone could really get the wrong idea. I changed the title to be more accurate. Thank you for pointing this out.

Joe Byers (author)2015-08-21

I have a salt water swimming pool. It uses the same method to generate chlorine as this method for purifying water. It id definitely not dangerous. In fact, it is far superior to adding liquid or solid chlorine to the water.

Mustard gas is a very different substance from chlorine.

Cade_Restle (author)2015-04-12

i know of two other systems besides electrochemical to purify water, first you can get a device that uses UV radiation to kill bacteria, second a filter (you can make one out of carbon tape) can work just fine. a tip if you don't have any of the above solutions, always drink water that's bubbling, that means there's a spring and the water is fresh.

marishka.noyb (author)2015-02-11

wouldn't pouring bleach into the water you are going to drink be easier or lust boiling it or Iodine tablets

M40 (author)marishka.noyb2015-02-19

Yes... adding 2 drops of bleach per quart is MUCH easier and faster than this "solution". This Instructable is essentially a children's experiment whereby you use electricity to convert table salt back into sodium and chlorine. Why convert salt when you could have just carried the chlorine in the first place? With this "solution", you're carrying the device, a power source and salt, and then wasting time trying to make chlorine on the fly.

So yes... this is a rather silly way to purify water. Just carry a small dropper bottle of bleach. I've been doing that for decades, and it's a cheap, fast and easy way to treat water. (author)2014-12-24

howdy, as wonderful as this invention is there are more things to consider in your survival situation. if your water supply from the great out-of-doors has been polluted mere chlorine may not help. this method will only dis-infect the water. any chemical or other contaminants will not be removed from the water. be advised.

Tachyon (author)2014-12-10

This is awesome!
I'm going to build something based on this idea asap.

One comment. be careful about the pencil you use, many modern pencils have low amounts of graphite and lots of other cr@p and fillers instead.

I'm thinking refills for mechanical drafting pencils might be great. Drill holes in an empty pen tube, stick in the pencil refills and cap the ends and wrap your wire around that.

For power I'll install a micro USB female connector and use any of the plethora of 5v sources that can connect to that. Like phone chargers, portable solar panels, USB rechargeable battery packs, etc.

EnriquePage (author)2014-09-30

Amazing, and an incredibly detailed explanation. Thanks a lot for this Instructable.

May I bother you with 3 questions?

I'm thinking about two variations of this design, one, closer to the MSR pen, could be achieved by enclosing the system in a plastic container, like a permanent marker plastic case, and having the graphite floating in the center of it. This wold make it more "rugged" in order to survive in a backpack.

The second idea is that, using a dc transformer (or even a solar panel or a hand cranked dynamo) one could build a "fixed" purifying station, which could be useful for people in rural areas with no access to clean water (for purifying rain or river water, for example).Do you think this would be viable?

Third and last, do you know of any other combination of anode/cathode that could work?

Thanks again for this info! And sorry to bother you with this questions!

In my 5th grade class I had the students use the carbon rods from the inside of "D Cell" Carbon Zinc Batteries. Note that you do Not want to use any of the other more modern batteries. The batteries can be 'disassembled' with a little needle-nosed pliers twisting. We used regular copper wire with its insulation striped off of it. In our gas generators we separated the Oxygen and Hydrogen producing poles on opposite sides off the containment vessel. (Glass cup.)

MaxM2 (author)EnriquePage2014-09-30

Thanks for your ideas!

The marker case would really help protect the electrodes in a backpack. Plus it would keep the batteries dry, like in a flashlight. It could also have a little compartment for keeping salt.

Yes, any form of power generation would be viable. I'd recommend 12V solar cells. Someone could sit nearby and periodically smell the water to see if enough chlorine has been produced. If it is going too slow, just wire up some more solar cells in parallel. That's what I would do if I had no access to clean water or electric power. I would also use the system for producing concentrated cleaning bleach for general sanitation.

Electrodes are a hard question. Wikipedia shows some "Standard Electrode Potentials" from which you can choose combinations that might work, but their table is hard to interpret. Industrial and research applications also use, instead of titanium: nickel, ruthenium oxide, and iridium oxide. Not too convenient! I might try aluminum foil or stainless steel. It will smell like a pool if it works.

remark1411 (author)2014-11-08

i love to do this on my science fair but what thing can i use instead of titanium wire plz tell me fast

pantalone (author)2014-10-01

Great instructable, very interesting! I always imagined the county water department buying bottles and bottles of chlorine bleach, but it makes more sense to add salt and make the bleach in situ. Many thanks for demystifying water purification!

Breygon (author)2014-09-30

this is great for bacterial contamination but don't forget potential organic / inorganic contamination. activated carbon will remove things like pesticides etc and an ion exchange resin will remove inorganics. a good test of water quality before / after you start treatment is a tds meter (total dissolved solids) these are quite cheep... or there is probably an instructables on his to make one. one water treatment method I've seen uses copper and nickel as a passive redox media, so there maybe potential for these materials as a cathode and anode. nice instructable I was looking at the product you based this on... hadn't realised it's no longer for sale.

wilgubeast (author)2014-09-30

I really enjoyed reading this. I accidentally learned some electrochemistry. And your main image is better than it appears on the homepage.

MaxM2 (author)wilgubeast2014-09-30

Thanks! I edited the main image a bit to improve the thumbnail. I hope it helped a little.

ehynes1 (author)2014-09-30

damn. This just Kobayashi Maru'd the whole survival water purification game.

seamster (author)2014-09-30

This is very interesting. Thank you for sharing this!

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