Living in a city like Buffalo, surrounded by fresh water, it’s hard to imagine that there are so many people on the planet that don’t have access to the seemingly abundant natural resource.
It’s also hard to imagine that, with 70% of the world covered by water, drinkable (potable) water is considered a luxury. Due to saline in the oceans, pollution, proximity, and countless other reasons, access to fresh water is troublesome for so many people.
“By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.” – National Geographic
These are a few of the reasons why researchers at University at Buffalo are in the process of developing a portable, sun-powered water filter – a solar still – that will one day deliver life-sustaining results to far-reaching communities that are desperate for relief.
The project, a startup called Sunny Clean Water – headed up by Qiaoqiang Gan, PhD, professor of electrical engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences – has been given a boost thanks to $1.4 million in federal funding from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.
“Water scarcity is a global challenge,” says Gan. “Societies are facing higher and higher pressure to obtain clean water, especially drinkable water, due to pollution and many other environmental concerns. So we are developing technology to use solar energy for water purification. This can be particularly valuable for generating water during a crisis, or in harsh environments where resources and infrastructure are limited.”
An efficient solar still – built to float on top of a body of water – would have the ability to heat and evaporate water to a point where impurities are left behind. Once the vapor is cooled, potable water is the result. While this process sounds relatively easy, there’s a reason that the age-old concept has been so hard to capitalize upon. Aside from being very complex, affordability is another issue, due to high energy consumption and the problem of transportation.
“Access to clean water is something we often take for granted, but its value cannot be understated,” said Congressman Brian Higgins. “This federal award invests in exciting local research and development that employs clean energy to deliver clean water. We commend the UB team leading the way in this innovative project.”
In a recent UB news release by Charlotte Hsu, it was noted that Gan’s team and Sunny Clean Water have previously received support from Launch NY, Columbia Technology Ventures and NEXUS-NY, which are supported by NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority); the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program; the UB Technology Transfer team; and the NSF I-Corps Site Program, coordinated by UB’s Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships office.
*Co-founders of Sunny Clean Water include Gan; Zongmin Bei, PhD, senior research support specialist and adjunct instructor in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Zongfu Yu, PhD, Jack St. Clair Kilby Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Lead image (Left to right): Qiaoqiang Gan, UB professor of electrical engineering, and Haomin Song, a UB electrical engineering PhD graduate, test materials in the lab. Both are also members of the Sunny Clean Water team. The photograph was taken prior to the pandemic. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo