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How solar power can turn Third World water carriers into students

Douglas Levere
University at Buffalo
University at Buffalo Electrical Engineering Professor Qiaoqiang Gan (l) and PhD graduate Haomin Song test materials in the lab before the pandemic.

University at Buffalo researchers are working on a new way to use free solar power to provide clean water, potentially changing many aspects of life in the Third World and elsewhere.

Using solar power to produce water isn't anything new. Even camping catalogs offer water heating for showers. Electrical Engineering Professor Qiaoqiang Gan said his work with his grad students is different because it's both solar power to heat the water and a new way to cool that cleaned water for use.

The U.S. Army has a contract with Gan's team for a $1.4 million and a two-year delivery time. The professor said he has some grad students from places where potable water shortages are common. Gan said it can happen in first-world countries, citing 2017 in Puerto Rico, when roads were blocked, trucks couldn't bring in drinkable water and there was no electricity to run treatment plants.

"FEMA, at a meeting, said a rescue effort was failing because the rescue resources can not be delivered. So the ground transporation was broken," Gan said. "So we aim to provide such a device for individuals. They can provide rescue water to meet their daily needs."

Gan said this water treatment system could mean major changes in some societies, since it would mean women and children can spend their time on education, rather than having to travel for hours to bring water back home.

"Male have to work to make money. The female and the children have to bring water. So usually every day, they have to spend many hours just to bring water," he said. "So they are wasting time for taking care of their children, to taking education. So these type of device may help us to address their challenges."

It is part of a series of various technology changes, like solar stoves and solar lighting, which are making big changes in poverty-ridden societies.

"We already visited several different areas all over the world," gan said. "We tested it in Saudi Arabia. We tested it in tropical countries. So, yes, a lot of needs, although even the developed areas they still have this need."