A second round of testing at Wrightsville Beach brought a group of recent college graduates one step closer to sharing their solution to the world’s clean water crisis.
Wilmington native Donald Justin Sonnett worked with Chris Matthews and Humberto Covarrubias to design a desalination rig powered exclusively by wave energy for a senior project in the William S. Lee College of Engineering at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.
But the project is more than a school assignment. Sonnett, Matthews and Covarrubias have banded together after graduation to refine the design and build a business in an effort to get the technology to communities that need it.
“This isn’t just an academic project for us. This isn’t something that’s just off to the side,” Matthews said during an Aug. 18 interview. This is something we’re really passionate about, and it shows in everything that we do for it.”
Sonnett agreed, adding that the process inspired personal growth.
“To see how much not only this project has evolved, but how much we’ve evolved and learned, it’s pretty incredible,” Sonnett said during an Aug. 18 interview. “This is our life now. We live and breathe it, and I think we’ve come a long way.”
Desalination efforts typically demand large amounts of electricity, further zapping community access to already limited resources and rendering large-scale desalination untenable. To create a more sustainable source of clean water, the group’s desalination system harnesses the motion of waves to generate energy needed to desalinate seawater through reverse osmosis.
A large pendulum on the rig captures wave energy, pumping seawater through a filter to remove sediment before reverse osmosis separates salt molecules from the water. A prototype of the system, called SAROS or Swell Actuated Reverse Osmosis System, was tested in Wrightsville Beach in May. When light swells contributed to lower yields than the target of 100 gallons of fresh water per day, the trio returned to the shop to adjust the design to accommodate varying wave conditions.
SAROS returned to Wrightsville Beach for an Aug. 18 test, when the team hoped to prove a proposed solution: an energy recovery pump that establishes a direct correlation between saltwater collected and freshwater produced by preserving water pressure in fluctuating wave conditions.
“It recirculates the pressure that we make back into making new pressure. So it’s almost like a turbo charger for the water system,” Sonnett said.
Leaky valves relieved pressure during the test, preventing the rig from producing a lot of fresh water. But data collected and analyzed later proves the pump works with an estimated potential to produce one gallon of fresh water every eight minutes with sufficient valves.
While the team continues to test concepts and tweak the SAROS design, they are also starting a business to serve as a platform for dissemination of the technology. The plan is for SAROS to be the first project under a parent company, Eco H2O Innovations. Sonnett said future projects would follow in the footsteps of SAROS, providing sustainable solutions for communities with limited access to water.
Currently set up as a nonprofit, the group plans to transition into a for-profit structure in order to attract investors. Matthews said the structure of the business will not affect the project’s philanthropic spin.
“Even if you keep your same philanthropic goal, you let investors know their return on the profit is set to be low. This thing is not a cash cow. It’s something that’s going to help people,” Matthews said.