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MIT develops solar-powered, portable desalination system

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October 27, 2010

MIT researchers have developed a portable, solar-powered water desalination system that co...

MIT researchers have developed a portable, solar-powered water desalination system that could provide water in disaster zones and remote regions around the globe (Image: Steven Dubowsky, Amy Bilton and Leah Kelley)

Researchers from MIT's Field and Space Robotics Laboratory (FSRL) have designed a portable, solar-powered desalination system that is cost-effective and easy to assemble to bring drinkable water in disaster zones and remote regions around the globe.

Relief efforts in the aftermath of large-scale natural disasters often call for water as one of the very first priorities: such was the case in the Haiti earthquake back in January. When coping with disasters of this scale the possibility to obtain drinkable water locally, such as by desalination of sea water, dramatically improves the effectiveness of the rescue efforts.

Desalination systems, however, are usually quite large and need a lot of energy to operate; these situations, instead, call for a quick, effective way to turn seawater into drinkable water in loco, with a small and portable system that doesn't need external sources of electrical power to work.

The system developed by MIT researchers does exactly this, and its characteristics make it particularly apt to the task of assisting people in emergency situations. It's designed so it can be cost-effectively assembled from standard parts and put into operation within hours even without the need of technicians. Its specifics mean the apparatus could also found use in remote areas where supplying energy and clean water can be logistically complex, such as desert locations or small villages in developing countries.

Photovoltaic panels power high-pressure pumps that push seawater through a filtering membrane. Unlike conventional solar-powered desalination systems that run on battery power when direct sunlight is not available, this system can operate efficiently even in cloudy conditions. Algorithms in the system's computer can change variables such as the power of the pump or the position of the valves to maximize water output in response to changing weather and current water demand.

As a result, the prototype can yield as many as 80 gallons of water a day in a variety of weather conditions while a larger version of the unit, which would only cost about US$8,000 to construct, could provide about 1,000 gallons of water per day. Because of its reduced dimensions, the team estimated that one C-130 cargo airplane could transport two dozen desalination units, enough to provide water for 10,000 people.

The researchers are now working on improving the system's efficiency even further and to change its design to make it more durable. The research was funded by MIT's Center for Clean Water and Clean Energy and the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.

About the Author
Dario Borghino Dario studied software engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. When he isn't writing for Gizmag he is usually traveling the world on a whim, working on an AI-guided automated trading system, or chasing his dream to become the next European thumbwrestling champion.   All articles by Dario Borghino
9 Comments

Will be very useful in developing countries. Congratul;ations MIT Team.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Anumakonda Jagadeesh
27th October, 2010 @ 11:48 pm PDT

I like this technology also, another off the grid solution that deals with water shortages.

Joe Stafura
28th October, 2010 @ 07:11 am PDT

Hi Gizmag and everyone,

Very good idea ... to sell photvoltaic an reverted osmosis installations. Nevertheless I remember them thatt it is easy tuse solar energy directly to distilate water. When you are near the sea water, you get it easily, and it is nearly clean apart of the salt. When subterranean water contains arsenic or other toxic salt, sure that osmosis coul be used, but in complicated ways.

Some mirrors or other maner to catch solar energy can be used by people who quickly assimilate the knowledge, when an electric solar station depends of high- technology maitenance. But Gizmag is Gizmag and MIT is MIT !

Facebook User
29th October, 2010 @ 05:37 am PDT

Hi Gizmag and everyone,

Very good idea ... to sell photvoltaic an reverted osmosis installations. Nevertheless I remember you that it is easy to use solar energy directly to distilate water. When you are near the sea water, you get it easily, and it is nearly clean apart of the salt. When subterranean water contains arsenic or other toxic salt, sure that osmosis could be used, but in complicated ways.

Some mirrors or other mean to catch solar energy can be used by people who quickly assimilate the knowledge, when an electric solar station depends of high technology maintenance. But Gizmag is Gizmag and MIT is MIT !

J.D. Bernardin, Bilbao, Spain.

Facebook User
29th October, 2010 @ 09:01 am PDT

This technology is at least 10 times more expensive then our technology and the cost per gallon is 800 times more then our cost.

Bernardin said it well - this is too high tech for what it does. There are simpler methods.

Advanced Global Techology Group-MK
17th December, 2010 @ 11:57 pm PST

Who were the main people that designed this. I want to get in contact with them to ask some questions

Angel F. Sanchez
18th October, 2011 @ 12:49 pm PDT

I am interested to get more details on this technology with the intention of having one unit for the very poor 'water-world' communities I am serving in the southernmost tip of the Philippines, some 14 miles off the coast of Malayasia.

Thanks a lot!

Peter

Peter Bellen
4th April, 2012 @ 09:45 pm PDT

do you have a 12V unit ? I need to mantain a 32 gallon watertank

Bill Knowles
17th April, 2012 @ 12:37 pm PDT

Hi Peter,

you can contact me if you are still looking for a desalination unit for the poor, mail : rafael@rootmaestro.com

Rafael van Bogaert
24th August, 2013 @ 07:34 am PDT
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