Thirty years ago in his first stand-up special, deadpan comic Steven Wright puzzled in his indelible style, “I bought some instant water one time, but I didn’t know what to add to it.”
As the global race to solve a water crisis severely impacting more than 1-billion people in developing nations and claiming more than 1,000 lives every day continues to escalate [with the United Nations reporting that half of Earth’s population will live in “water-stressed areas” by 2030], British mechanical engineer and project manager William Janssen has, with his cutting-edge company Desolenator, turned comedian Wright’s musing inside out and upside down.
Desolenator was formed in 2012 as a springboard for technology the company’s CEO Janssen invented and subsequently patented. Employing high-performance solar panels, food-grade materials, and an embedded boiler and pump in a low-cost, environmentally-friendly piece of equipment, roughly the size of a large, flat-screen television, Desolenator strips salt and other impurities from the ocean making seawater safe for human consumption. This week, the company wraps a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, with the first round of product slated for shipment this fall. (Pledges of $479 entitled donors to their own device). The device, projected to function optimally for 20 years with virtually no maintenance or repairs, can convert 15 liters of water contaminated with salt, arsenic, saline, and other toxins into safe drinking water each day. Clearly, Janssen’s recipe for success is simple: just add innovation.
Not Impossible Now: Not many people grow up dreaming of tackling the global water crisis. How did you become engaged with this situation?
Janssen: I come from a background in mechanical engineering and project management, and I spent years working on the energy question. That led to water, of course, and the energy question became more specific: what energy is needed to create drinkable water? How could one harvest enough to be able to distill water in a significant quantity, in a small and compact unit?
The answer is simple, you’ve said: just add sun.
Yes! A solar collector is a very simple contraption. It's just a black plate with some mostly copper tubing on it and a piece of glass in front of it. The sun shines on the black plate, the black plate gets hot, the copper tubing gets hot, and the water is warmed, stripping away the contaminants. About 10 years ago, I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if instead of a black plate you could use a solar panel in such a setup, which would allow you to harvest electricity and heat at the same time. That allows the entire process – including heating the water to almost boiling temperature and then cooling down again over a series of PV panels – without the need for electricity. That seemed the best answer to a problem that deeply impacts a lot of global regions without access to water or electricity.
In the process, the contaminated water is actually converted to steam, right?
Yes, the Desolenator brings the water up to boiling temperature and is then siphoned through tubing into a little boiler with a spiral-heating coil, powered by the solar panels, and the water is converted to vapor or steam. When I was developing the technology, the question for me became: How do I now effectively condense the vapor back into drinking water? Eventually, I thought of running the vapor back through the tubing for a cooling process, which accomplished the change from vapor to water. That was the Eureka moment.
In some ways, this sounds similar to the ways that Boy Scouts treat water on camping expeditions.
Exactly! What we’ve been able to do is simply, efficiently, and inexpensively created a quantum leap forward, changing the amount of water a traditional solar cell can generate – a gallon a day – and increased that to four gallons a day.
Most of us in the Western world are aware of the gravity of the water crisis, that more than a thousand human beings, most of them children, are dying every day for lack of clean water. How does that awareness drive what you’re doing?
It drives very much what we are doing, of course. We are driving in this calendar year from prototype to serial production, with field-testing in a highly water-deprived, remote location in Southern India -- the state of Tamil Nadu, a relatively dry state on the east coast of India -- where the only access to drinking water is to bribe the guy driving the water truck when he passes through the region every week or so. The problem is: these people have no money to offer those bribes. It’s a terrible situation. What many of us are not facing yet is that very soon more than 3-billion people on the planet will be very worried about their water supply. This is not just a concern for people who live in developing nations. It’s everyone’s problem.
What will it take for countries today comfortable in their lifestyles with an apparently abundant supply of clean water to realize the crisis is real?
When clean water becomes so rare that its cost skyrockets. When people realize that, like oil or other natural resources, there’s only so much of this available. When the crisis is on their doorstep, that’s when most people realize there’s a problem. We’re trying to prevent the crisis from landing in every family’s home. The Desolenator can be used anywhere in the world.
Tell me about the work in India this year.
We are taking between 200 and 500 units with us to the village, setting up every family with their own unit, which will produce four gallons of clean water for them every day. We hope to do that in August or September of this year.
How many people are required for that kind of installation?
We have a team in India that consists of seven people. We have a social worker based within the village, a technician on standby to collect data for future production runs, and others to assist as necessary.
You recently surpassed your $150,000 goal on Indiegogo. Tell me why crowdfunding makes sense for a project like yours.
We decided to do a crowdfunding campaign for several reasons. One of the main reasons is to bring the news out there. Crowdfunding is a great way of connecting with people, of raising awareness, of familiarizing people with what we’re doing. If they like what we’re doing, then can make a small contribution -- $1 or $10,000, whatever they would like or are able to do. Even if they cannot make a contribution, they can learn about the water crisis and our solution and that it is not only effective, but sustainable.
And for a contribution of $479, we can essentially buy our own Desolenator, yes?
That’s right. Eventually, and hopefully very soon, we will be able to manufacture these units for every region in the world where there is a fear of water shortage, and access to polluted water or seawater or any other source of water. The unit is effective against heavy metals and arsenic, any toxins or contaminants along those lines.
So what’s the five-year plan?
We have a very straightforward roadmap. What we have currently developed is a family-sized unit. Once we have that developed to perfection, our next intention is to see how far the technology can be scaled. Can we build a community-sized unit? Can we achieve 300-gallons a day? That’s what we’re looking at -- safe, clean water for everyone who needs it.
Check out the video from Desolenator's Indiegogo campaign, here: