A solar-powered solution to the worldwide water crisis

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.”