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UB startup uses sunshine to clean dirty water for disasters, poor nations

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Distilling water using the sun’s rays dates back to Aristotle's time.

Now, a University at Buffalo startup has found a quick way to do it --  and it could transform how potable water gets to people in developing countries or in areas stricken by natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes.

The university’s Sunny Clean Water startup said its method is nearly three times as fast as the industry standard.

“It’s pretty simple, and it’s not really using any crazy components or materials,” said Matt Singer, Sunny Clean Water’s CEO and a UB electrical engineering graduate student. “We found a really cheap, efficient way to do it.”

The process uses a floating solar still and a specially-engineered carbon-based cloth to capture, desalinate and purify as much as a liter of water every three hours in a prototype developed by UB associate professor of electrical engineering Qiaoqiang Gan, Singer and other university electrical engineering students.

Sunny Clean Water presented its prototype last week at NEXUS-NY’s Clean Energy Demo Day in Rochester.

NEXUS-NY is a clean energy seed accelerator funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority with help locally from National Grid. It helps put clean energy researchers across the state in contact with entrepreneurs and others who can help with funding and customer support.

“The reality is if you look at the amount of research that takes place at universities across the United States ... very infrequently do these inventions make it to the marketplace,” said Doug Buerkle, the executive director of NEXUS-NY. “We work to solve that challenge.”

Sunny Clean Water’s unit was developed by UB's electrical engineers but it doesn’t use any electricity. It relies on the sun for its power.

Here’s how it works:

The floating still is placed in a river or pond. The special carbon cloth absorbs moisture and becomes saturated.

Then, heated by sunlight penetrating an angled acrylic housing placed over the cloth, the water condenses.

It leaves behind bacteria, viruses, other impurities and salt. The distilled condensation then runs off at an angle into a rectangular reservoir beneath the still.

That now-clean water can then be transferred into water bottles or drums.

The speed which makes Sunny Clean Water’s process unique comes from its ability to accelerate the heating process with its carbon cloth.

“We speed up the process,” Singer said. “That’s what our research is all about now.”

The cloth, which is turned from white to black when treated with its newly-developed nano-carbon material, helps absorb more heat inside the still, accelerating the speed of the process.

Sunny Clean Water seeks several patents and licenses to export the invention.

When NEXUS-NY identified Sunny Clean Water as a potential business-creating opportunity, UB researchers parlayed about $60,000 in state and federal funding to ramp up its development efforts.

It was one of six upstate companies to present their clean technology to investors, industry professionals and others at the Rochester Demo Day. Others included firms from Cornell University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

It’s just the type of story NEXUS-NY envisioned when it was founded four years ago.

Sunny Clean Water is a good example of what can happen with a little boost, Buerkle said.

“These young companies need the adequate resources before they die,” he said.

Sunny Clean Water is now working with a Chinese company to mass produce its invention. Singer hopes production will be underway by this time next year.

Singer said the salt mining industry is already taking an interest in Sunny Clean Water because of its ability to speed up the process of solar-power evaporation and desalinization. The company is attracting interest from mine operators in Utah, Chile and Argentina.

The company hopes to work with non-governmental organizations to introduce its products into underdeveloped areas of the world, where clean drinking water is scarce, Singer said. It expects to begin those efforts in the Philippines.

Developers envision their solar still could also be valuable – even life saving – in places raked by natural disasters like Puerto Rico, where many remain without potable water in the wake of last month’s Hurricane Maria.

“It’s definitely enough for one person in a day,” Singer said. “One person can stay hydrated indefinitely with this.”


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