News

A solar-powered solution to the worldwide water crisis

5/11/12

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity student-​​researchers have cre­ated a solar-​​powered desali­na­tion system designed to address the world­wide water crisis by pro­ducing potable ocean water.

The inno­v­a­tive device, dubbed the “Pyramid Desali­nator,” was designed for a senior cap­stone project under the direc­tion of mechan­ical and indus­trial engi­neering pro­fessor Mohammad Taslim. The under­grad­uate team mem­bers included Stephen Bethel, Dou­glas Dell’Accio, Matt Haf­fen­r­effer, Zach Modest and Michael Wegman, who con­ceived of the idea after com­pleting a Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram in fluid dynamics in Egypt.

More than 800 mil­lion people throughout the world lack access to clean water, 3.6 mil­lion of which die every year from water­borne ill­nesses. “If we can decrease that number by even a small per­centage,” Haffen­r­effer said, “then our system can make a global impact.”

The team’s desali­na­tion system con­sists of a one-​​square-​​meter alu­minum frame, a water tray and a water storage area located beneath the tray. A piece of plastic fash­ioned into the shape of a pyramid covers the entire contraption.

Here’s how it works: A user pours a small jug of ocean water into the tray. The sun heats the water through the plastic cov­ering, causing the water to evap­o­rate. Wind con­denses the water, which then drips into the storage area. The salt in the water is left behind on the tray.

The output goal is to pro­duce up to one gallon of potable water per day. Other desali­na­tion sys­tems on the market pro­duce a frac­tion of this quantity.

Team mem­bers, who have already shipped a pro­to­type to Cameroon, a country in west Cen­tral Africa, hope to create a dis­tri­b­u­tion part­ner­ship with Water​.org or the Amer­ican Red Cross.

They are seeking $10,000 in funding from Jola Ven­ture, a for-​​profit social enter­prise backed by IDEA: Northeastern’s Ven­ture Accel­er­ator, to redesign the con­trap­tion using more cost-​​effective mate­rials and create an auto­mated water feeding system.

Modest said he and his team­mates could make their desali­na­tion system for $20 with the proper mate­rials — and then sell it for con­sid­er­ably less. “Com­pared to buying bot­tled water in bulk, this would be well under one-​​tenth of the price,” he said.

Taslim praised the young entre­pre­neurs. “These guys put the knowl­edge they acquired in five years at North­eastern in class and on co-​​op to good use,” he said, noting weekly design cri­tiques in which the students rou­tinely returned with fresh ideas. “This was a huge oppor­tu­nity for them to go through the design process as they would in the real world.”