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Student-designed Solarball creates drinkable water


March 30, 2011

The Solarball is a student-designed device that creates clean drinking water through evaporation and condensation (All photos courtesy Monash University)

The Solarball is a student-designed device that creates clean drinking water through evaporation and condensation (All photos courtesy Monash University)

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When he set out on a trip to Cambodia in 2008, Industrial Design student Jonathan Liow had no idea it was going to be a life-changing experience. Upon seeing the poverty and poor living conditions in that country, however, he decided that he wanted to build things that could help people. After hearing about the need for cheap and effective water purification in Africa, he proceeded to create the Solarball for his graduate project at Australia's Monash University. The ball is reportedly capable of producing 3 liters (about 3 quarts) of drinkable water per day, using nothing but polluted water and sunlight.

Users start by pouring dirty water into the Solarball. That water proceeds to get heated by the Sun's rays, which shine in from 360 degrees through the ball's transparent upper section. Condensation forms on the inside of the ball, and is guided down to a spout via an internal gutter that runs around its diameter. What comes out is pure, clean water, as the contaminants are left behind in the unevaporated water.

Liow – who has since graduated from Monash – said that one of the main challenges in the design was "to make the device more efficient than other products available, without making it too complicated, expensive, or technical." The plastic used in its construction is food-safe and entirely recyclable, and we would hope it's UV-tolerant.

The Solarball has since been named as a finalist in the 2011 Australian Design Awards - James Dyson Award, and will be displayed at the Milan International Design Fair. Liow is currently in the process of looking for funding to get the ball manufactured and distributed on a large scale.

It would be interesting to see how it performs as compared to products utilizing SODIS water purification, in which the heat and radiation of sunlight are used to kill pathogens in tainted water.

Via Inhabitat

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

This is quite interesting and useful, but it is only good for puryfing water that contains salts or other non-evaporable substances. If light fractions of petrol, per example, are present in the water, it will just evaporate too and condense on the sides, just like the water.

Still a good way to make saltwater drinkable though.


@Frank191 Agreed, but the product would still be better than drinking the non-evapourated polluted water that was put in there to begin with.


What sort of unclean water does Africa suffer from? I was under the impression that it was more about bacteria and feces contamination than petrol.

Regardless, this is an interesting idea. In regards for funding, maybe you can get people donating the cost - a sort of \'buy this African child clean drinking water\' thing.

This provides less than the SIDOS system but has the advantage in that it doesn\'t need any internal parts (like filters) replaced.

Von Meerman

It\'s a great concept...a couple things are of concern however...one is that He hopes the plastic is going to be UV tolerant? I would think that a product that is intended to be placed in direct sunlight would be UV tolerant. The claim that it receives 360 degrees of sunlight is not possible with this design....as only 180 degrees of the product are clear in the picture...but a good start regardless! I like small ideas for big problems...if we wait for magic bullet big scale solutions were gonna be buried in our own mess before those can arise!

Yule Brenner

It strikes me that one might be able to simplify even further with a bit of plumbing that could be installed between natively available drink containers to stack them, such as 2 liter polycarbonate or plastic milk jugs. Lower jug holds input, higher jug provides condensation surface, junction bit separates vapor and fluid paths and provides a drain for output.

Bob Ehresman

Frank said \"If light fractions of petrol, per example, are present in the water, it will just evaporate too and condense on the sides, just like the water.\"

Not a biggy. A few minor design or operational changes & you have clean distilled water.

Stuart Saunders

I don\'t see how this is a breakthrough. There was a similar device back in the very early sixties for use on liferafts. Using the same principle of evaportion due to solar heat with subsequent collection of the condensate, it distilled fresh water from the sea water which was in plentiful supply - given that the liferaft was floating in it! IIRC the trade name was SolarStill and was tethered while afloat to the liferaft.

Facebook User

\"Buy a child in Cambodia a water ball. Give him/her a lifetime to play.\"

This play on words could show a happy child playing with a ball then the comparison of a Cambodia child struggling to drink dirty water. It should tug on the heartstrings of a population whose children play with out worry of clean drinking water.


\"The claim that it receives 360 degrees of sunlight is not possible with this design....as only 180 degrees of the product are clear in the picture\"

I think the 360 degrees refers to the horizontal plane which the design can receive. I guess if the device was supported high off the ground could it receive 360 decrease on the vertical plane.

Will C

Good idea. What about fitting it with a sectioned plastic flower-like mirror which would wrap around it in transit and then open up when used. Its purpose would be to increase the available energy of the system. Sections of the flower portion could overlap so that when it was opened, maximum area of reflection would become available.

Adrian Akau

Would this work ( from a lifeboat ) on an unstable surface of sea water ?

David L. @ Huji

Has he investigated kickstarter.com for his financing? Could get the whole world web helping him.

Fred Conwell

While this is a noble effort, I really do not see where this is significantly different than other solar stills. The idea of having sunlight come through a clear roof, evaporate water in a container below, and having the water condense on the roof and run down the sides into an exit tube has been around for a very long time. I studied it in college 40 years ago, and it was not new then. The only thing different I see is making it round.


I like Bob Ehresman\'s idea of using locally-available disposable plastic containers even better. The simpler the design and the more local free parts that are used, the more accessible it will be to the people in developing nations who need it. Here\'s a design concept for a mini-still that just occurred to me that requires nothing more than three 2-liter soda bottles (which are presumably UV-resistant), about 6\" of flexible 1/4\" plastic tubing and access to a 1/4\" tapered awl or sharp knife tip (any roughly-comparable size tubing and a slightly-undersize awl will work just as well):

Strip the label off one bottle. With a sharp knife or scissors, cut the neck off just below the \"shoulder\" of this bottle, where it becomes a straight side. This is your condenser.

With the 1/4\" awl, punch a slightly undersize hole in the side of the condenser about 1\" below the cut edge. Friction-fit one end of the tubing into this hole about 1/8\".

Invert the condenser and place it over the neck of another bottle, which is the reservoir. If cut properly the friction between the inner surface of the top bottle and the outer shoulder of the bottom bottle will be sufficient to hold it in place.

Feed the other end of the tube into the top of the 3rd bottle, which is positioned a little lower than the reservoir bottle. As distilled water collects at the bottom of the condenser, it will flow into the storage bottle, which can be capped and stored until it\'s needed.

One other consideration is to leave the label on the dirty water reservoir in order to shield it from the sun or else somehow shade the dirty water, say with leaves. The greater the temperature differential between the dirty water and the condenser, the more quickly that it will distill clean water.

With this design, in order for developed nations to lend a hand to those in need, all that need be sent to help a whole village (with access to empty soda bottles) is a 100\' roll of tubing, an awl and some \"how-to\" illustrations. $10 should help a whole village with a continuous clean water supply of 200 solar mini-stills. As a bonus, the remaining sludge (if the contamination is fecal) should make a dandy plant fertilizer.

The point of the outlet tubing is to keep the distilled water clean (from insects and dirt) and to reduce evaporation of the precious potable water. However, in a real pinch, the need for the tubing/awl can be eliminated: Instead of punching a hole, cut a 1\" (or so) slit in the condenser bottle perpendicular to the cut edge. When the condenser is inverted and lightly placed on top of the reservoir, the slit opening will allow the distilled water to exit and run down the outside of the reservoir bottle, which needs to sit in a bowl or pot (or larger milk jug with the top cut off). The reservoir should be raised off the bottom of the collection bowl (with several clean rocks) or the reservoir will start to float when 1/2 the water has been processed.

If anyone tries this out, please post the results here. Even better, how about some ideas on how to share this information with people who don\'t have Internet access?


Almost one of the first things we learned on survival courses (and I believe even in basic training it was demonstrated to us), - using a plastic bag, a sour cream container and a couple of rocks.

Water from the ground, pure, clean and free. No fancy gadgets. This device is nothing more than a \"formalized industrial design\" of something that has been around for ages.

Edwin Wityshyn

A similarly designed devise was provided in Navy & Marine Corps aviation flight survival kits in the 60s. It was a blow-up plastic sphere about the size of a beach ball. One compartment held seawater and vapor would condense on the inside and run down into a lower compartment.


This device is nothing more than a \"formalized industrial design\" of something that has been around for ages.

Edwin, you probably meant that as a criticism. But it\'s actually the whole point: taking an idea that has been tried and tested, and using it to build a strong, reliable solution that will actually help people.

My main question is - why a ball shape? Doesn\'t that just make it less stable, and more likely to recontaminate the purified water when it tipes over?

Steve Bennett

I have also played with this same well known old principle Same simple principles, but different design of the device The objective for me, was to design a passive ( no moving parts) , simple, fool proof, lowest cost device. No electricity, no power other than the sun The challenge is in choosing the right materials and shape. Mine beats this one, as far as I can see The other related problem is in choosing the most cost effective (due to initial cost and durability) materials My tests show a consistent output of 4.7 liters per square meter on tropical latitudes, Spring season, 100% clear sky days

I imagine around, say, at least 30 square meters needed for a family to satisfy their drinking, cooking, dish and pot washing, clothes washing, light bathing needs Even with my much lower cost design, you are talking about a couple of thousand dollars investment ( I am working on that presently, to see if I can get it down even more ) That is why I believe the used soda pop bottle solution is great, but limited to not dying of thirst only. A bottle system will work, but not achieve my specific output, so I can not imagine hundreds of bottles in a system per family

Jaime Sada

very interesting thanks for the article

adam smolkowicz

Yeah, it\'s been around forever. Putting it into production is the key. Better and more plentiful for a village though is to dig a new well that everyone can use. Still, solar stils are pretty handy in some situations. Good site for the history of \"conventional\" solar stils... http://www.solaqua.com/solstilbas.html

Roderic Langer

Industrial Design student Jonathan Liow - please contact me ASAP. Burt

Burton Danet, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist (retired) Co-Founder, ABC4All Portal4Relief http://home.abc4all.net/ 1-310-712-5477 Skype abc4allteam

Burton Danet

Seriously, can I buy one of these?

Anthony Cappel-West

Regardless of these posted extra requests, I'd still buy a Solarball as-is. But I can't find where to buy them. When will they be available on Amazon or elsewhere? This is a useful product.

Keith Miller

VERY ANNOYING!! this guy stole my idea. And I'm NOT kidding people... Nothing genius in it though, just common sense. I hope he uses for what he built it for in a first place: POOR PEOPLE- they are waiting.

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