It’s no secret that many parts of the world lack water, electricity, and Internet. At least one in 10 don’t have access to clean water, and 17 percent of the world lack access to electricity. Even the Internet, seen as "an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights" by the UN, is accessible for just 40 percent of the globe.
It’s no small feat to fix these problems. But in a bid to continue the push to address them, a team of researchers and designers have developed Watly: a solar-powered generator capable of providing clean water, electricity, and even Internet access.
The team, led by Italian entrepreneur Marco Attisani, already piloted a project last year in Abenta Village, Ghana, called Watly 2.0. Using their more powerful and much larger Watly 3.0 prototype (pictured below), the start-up have set their sights on a future project in either Ghana, Nigeria, or Sudan. Just one of these newer units costs up to $450,000 to manufacture, and although no selling price has been set yet, it's hoped they will be purchased by outside investors for use in remote villages.
“What you are looking at is a big machine, it's an infrastructural machine. It's 40 meters long (130 feet long), 15 meters wide (50 feet wide), and 15 tonnes (16.5 tons)," said Attisani to Reuters about the Watly 3.0. "Primarily it's a computer, a big computer that deals with things that computers do normally. They calculate, they broadcast, they collect, they send them to the cloud, they interact with humans."
The Watly 3.0, which is still in development, will be revealed fully in September 2016. Image credit: Watly.
So how does it work? The technology uses 40 mono-crystalline photovoltaic panels placed on top of the structure, which is able to generate up to 70 kilowatt-hours per day. The free electricity generated is made available to people through battery chargers and electrical plugs.
As for the water, it uses energy from solar panels to pump and filter wastewater, seawater, and even sewage water. The water is first filtered using graphene-based technology, heated to over 115°C (239°F), and then condensed. This distillation process kills off any pathogens. Any remaining residues of salt, heavy metals, small rocks, or inorganic compounds become a “concentrated brine” and is pumped into a separate waste tank.
When it’s all done, Watly can purify 5,000 liters (1,320 gallons) of water per day. It’s estimated the machine has a lifespan of at least 15 years. Since the model requires low maintenance and works without a connection to the grid, Watly can work in remote and poorly connected areas where it is needed most.
On top of all this, it can be connected via radio, 3G, 4G, or satellites to provide a wireless connection to the Internet for over 500 meters (1,640 feet) around. This can either be used to remotely monitor the system’s performance or for general use. Of course, this has a lot of potential to provide poorly connected people with news, medical information, education, culture, or simply just leisure.
Since the project started in 2013, they have gathered $22 million in external investment under their belt, and have more recently launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. They also have numerous design and technology prizes, including the Horizon 2020 award sponsored by the European Commission.
It’s certainly a fascinating and ambitious idea. But as much as the money, ideas, and intention seem to be all in the right place, there’s no guarantee of its success.
As Diran Soumonni, an innovation scholar from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who is not involved in the project, explained to Quartz: “No matter how cool it is as a technical gadget, unless it gets used it’s not considered to be a successful innovation."
He added: "This kind of solution, on the surface of it, is moving in the right direction. What I would like to see is for African inventors who live embedded in these environments or are closer to them to be involved in some co-creation.”