MIT Desalination Device Solar Powered

For disaster scenarios, you could hardly imagine a more useful device than the one MIT researchers have come up with. It’s a small, portable, self-contained water desalination system that can turn seawater into drinking water and — this might be the most important thing — it does so via solar power.

The team from MIT’s Field and Space Robotics Laboratory announced it has demonstrated a prototype that churns out 80 gallons of water a day, even in variable weather conditions. They figure a unit able to provide 1,000 gallons of day could be constructed at a cost of $8,000. And, fully imagining the kind of disaster situation that engulfed Haiti after the devastating January earthquake, they estimate that a single C-130 cargo airplane could bring two dozen units — meeting the water needs of 10,000 people — to a stricken area.

image via MIT

The designers said they had a couple of key things in mind when creating the device: they wanted it to be relatively inexpensive and easy to assemble; and they didn’t want it reliant on perfectly sunny conditions. They accomplished the former goal by using standard parts that can be put together by local people in a hard-hit area. The latter goal was reached by designing a system that can respond to variables like sunshine, temperature and water demand.

“If it’s very sunny, the system will work faster and produce more water, but even when it’s cloudy, it will still produce water,” said graduate student and team member Leah Kelley. The system also filters out salt by using reverse osmosis. The team presented preliminary results for it earlier this month at the EuroMed 2010-Desalination for Clean Water and Energy Conference.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.