Published December 18. 2012 4:00AM
Stonington - Two weeks ago, Robert Wood walked to one of four large plastic tanks, opened a valve and drew a cup of clear water.
Just moments before, the brackish water, which came directly from the adjacent Pawcatuck River, had a brownish tint and was filled with particles.
He then faced a small group of people touring his two-month-old facility, which is located in 6,000 square feet of formerly vacant mill space on Mechanic Street.
"For the second week in a row I will perform a death-defying feat as I drink this water. Cheers," joked Wood as he gulped it down. "Now that's tasty water."
That's not how Pawcatuck River water is usually described.
Despite the joke, the president of AirWell H20 is serious about the prospects for his new Pawcatuck company, which has started with 16 employees.
Wood said he plans to bring as many as 150 jobs here over the next year and eventually as many as 500, thanks to a compact ozone-based water purification system developed by his company. He said the system has numerous commercial and humanitarian applications.
"We're looking in places no one else is looking. We're on the leading edge of what can be done," said Wood, who speaks about his company with the enthusiasm of a promoter, something he once did in the music business.
Wood, a Groton native, recently moved back to southeastern Connecticut from California where he said he was involved in the music, Internet and farming industries before finding his passion in clean water.
He said his company's innovations can inexpensively provide clean drinking water to disaster sites, deployed military units and, most of all, impoverished Third World villages that do not have access to clean water.
Wood said he is working with his first customers, Caribbean resorts that are looking to clean and reuse water.
This spring the company is slated to begin testing its technology in the fracking industry, a method used to extract oil and gas from rock that can contaminate groundwater.
Meanwhile, initial testing shows the high oxygen content of the water could help crops grow faster and in bottled water form could be used to help athletes recover quicker.
The latter idea has resulted in a bottled water product called Oxygenade, which the company plans to begin bottling in Norwich within six months. Wood said the spin-off company has backers such as former Boston Red Sox player Kevin Millar and former NFL quarterback John David Booty.
The company has also developed a way to "mine" large amounts of water from humidity at a cost of 11 cents per gallon. This is done in shipping containers. "And we designed everything to work off the grid with wind and solar power," Wood said.
Wood, who said he is working with the government of the African nation of Burundi about using the company's solar-powered well drilling technology to provide drinking water for people who don't have it, rattled off statistic after statistic about the extent of the problem.
He said many people spend much of their day just trying to find clean water.
"We're attempting to break that cycle of misery," he said.
While the humanitarian effort is what drives him, to do that work Wood's privately funded company has to make money on other initiatives.
And that evolves around the technology that uses a plasma field to split oxygen molecules, according to Greg Scheurer, the company's vice president of engineering. He said the split oxygen kills almost all biological material in the water and renders nonliving material such as heavy metals inert. The final product also has a higher oxygen content than regular water.
Because of the high oxygen content of the end product, the company has a small greenhouse on site where it is testing the effect of the water on plant growth. So far it appears lettuce plants grow faster than with regular water. The goal is to reduce growing time of the lettuce so there can be an additional growing season for farmers each year.
Wood, who graduated from Fitch High School, said AirwellH20 has plans to not only take over 54,000 square feet of additional space in the mill at 99 Mechanic St. but eventually hopes to lure companies it does business with to town.
"We want to make this a hot spot," he said.
He and Scheurer said the company will give preference for jobs to disabled veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is working with the state labor department on that initiative.
Airwell H20 is also the kind of company that First Selectman Ed Haberek said he has been trying to lure to town - an innovative, clean, high-tech business that offers the promise of well-paying jobs.
Haberek, who met Wood at a technology forum, has been working to have him locate his company here for the past two years. Wood commended Haberek for his support.
"This is the perfect type of company for the town. They're so diversified," Haberek said.