“The sea is everything,” said Journey to the Center of the Earth scribe Jules Verne. The famed French science-fiction novelist was spot-on, of course. Seventy-one percent of the Earth is water-covered, with nearly 97% of that water held in the ocean. Until recently, though, none of that H20 has meant much to the 1.1-billion human beings without daily access to clean drinking water, and even less to the children who perish – one every 21-seconds, according to recent reports – because of waterborne illness and dehydration.
But a team of Montreal college students, led by Dragan Tutic and Renaud Lefortune at University of Sherbrooke, is on a mission to ensure that the sea will eventually mean everything to everyone.
“The planet is seven-tenths water, and yet only about six countries have access to most of that water,” says Tutic, who recently earned a Chemical Engineering from Sherbrooke. “We’ve got to find new ways to bring water to everyone else. There is more than enough for everyone; it’s just a matter of getting it to them.”
Tutic and team believe they have the answer, a buoyant reverse osmosis water filtration system that draws its energy from the ocean’s waves. Last fall, the device – about 2-meters in diameter, anchored some 200-meters off the coast of the Magdalen Islands – successfully converted 10,000-liters of seawater into safe, clean drinking water. The project, a class project at Sherbrooke, was funded with $90,000 of backing raised on Kickstarter.
Project Odyssee – its named loosely cribbed from Homer’s epic tale – is in the early stages of research and development for a device that will be able to convert 1-million liters daily. “It’s definitely achievable,” says Tutic.
A budding inventor from early childhood, Tutic was inspired to tackle “the water problem” while showering in 2012 on holiday in an arid, remote part of Europe. “I suddenly started wondering, ‘Where did this water come from? There’s no water for miles in any direction,’” he recalls. “I’m from Canada. We’re surrounded by rivers and lakes. Most of us, we just open up the faucet and the water flows. But the water has to come from somewhere and it’s not like that for everyone. That seemed to me like a problem that had to be solved. Urgently.”
At University, Tutic and longtime pal Lefortune recruited seven student collaborators – engineers, chemists, designers – to crack the water riddle. “We started off with lots of research,” he says. “We studied everything that’s out there about converting the ocean’s tide into energy. We studied everything about the different kinds of filtration membranes we might use. We learned all that we could until we had better ideas.”
With the ticking clock of the teams’ imminent graduation growing steadily louder, the Projet Odyssee crew turned to crowdfunding to finance their endeavor. “The issue of clean water was getting a lot of media attention at the time, so we thought maybe if we initiated a Kickstarter campaign, we could get the support we needed,” Tutic says. “We also thought, worst case, even if we didn’t raise the money we needed, more people would be aware that the issue of clean water is a very real and very important one.”
With their $90,000 fundraising goal met, Tutic and team built their device and traveled to the Quebec archipelago that finds its natural resources tapped every summer when tourists descend upon the Magdalens. Attached to a giant float or buoy, the device – with microscopic membranes inside, which strip seawater of all impurities – was hauled about a quarter-mile offshore by a small fisherman’s boat. The tide’s rise and fall upon the device created a pumping action – “like a squirt pistol, basically,” Tutic says – generating energy, allowing the filtration engine to function. “It’s child’s play, basically,” he says.
“The machine gathered energy from the waves, like we knew that it would, and it purified the water. Like we knew that it would,” says Lefortune. “Now we just need to do better. And bigger.”
Now graduated from Sherbrooke, Tutic and Lefortune are hard at work on the next adventure for Projet Odyssee, hoping to attract additional donors and investors for their next, much larger prototype. “We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished so far,” says Tutic. “In two or three years, we’ve come up – from scratch – a wave energy converter that makes safe drinking water. We’re just going to keep going and pushing and innovating so that we can help as many people as possible. There’s still a long way to go. This problem has to be solved.”