BUFFALO, N.Y. – Water may appear to be an abundant
resource, but in some parts of the world clean water is hard to
That could change through the work of Deshawn Henry, a
University at Buffalo sophomore civil engineering major, who
researched how to improve a 6-foot-tall, self-sustaining magnifying
Properly termed a water lens, the device uses another abundant
resource — sunlight — to heat and disinfect polluted
water. Since the frame for the lens can be constructed from
commonly found materials — wood, plastic sheeting and water
— the lens can be built for almost no cost, offering an
inexpensive method to treat water.
The device may not look like much, but it can heat a liter of
water to between 130 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit in a little more
than an hour, destroying 99.9 percent of bacteria and
“The water lens could have a huge impact in developing
countries,” says Henry, a Queens’ native who performed
the study under James Jensen, professor in the Department of Civil,
Structural and Environmental Engineering.
“Millions of people die every year from diseases and
pathogens found in unclean water, and they can’t help it
because that’s all they have. Either they drink it or they
The lens consists of a plastic sheet covered with water
supported by a wooden frame. The frame holds a small container of
water below the lens in line with a focal point created from a
concentrated ray of sunlight. Barring the weather, once assembled,
the lens functions freely. Due to the sun’s movement
throughout the day, Henry needs to repeatedly shift the container
to match the focal point.
Henry’s research tested how altering the thickness of the
plastic sheet and the volume of water over the sheet affected the
efficiency of the lens. The device was tested with plastic sheets
that were 0.7, 1 and 2 millimeters thick, and water volumes of
four, six and eight liters.
The study found that adding more water to the lens improved
efficiency, as larger areas of water transmitted more energy from
sunlight. However, thicker plastic sheets consumed more energy from
light, lowering the lens’ efficiency.
A plastic sheet that was too thin or excessive amounts of water
could break the lens. Henry concluded that the 0.7-millimeter sheet
could efficiently heat the container while supporting eight liters
of water, but any more and the sheet could potentially break.
With 1.1 billion people lacking access to clean drinking water,
Henry’s work could make a difference in the world, says
Jensen, who frequently mentors undergraduate students during summer
Henry studied under Jensen through the UB Louis Stokes Alliance
for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, which connects
underrepresented students with research opportunities in STEM
fields. LSAMP is one of many programs in the Office of
Undergraduate Education focused on increasing experiential-learning
opportunities for students.
“I have seen how intense research activities can inspire
UB students and educate the next generation of innovators,”
says Jensen. “Deshawn’s work would allow a family in
sunny regions to treat drinking water without having to expend
energy or rely on imported technologies.”
Building a larger water lens that remains efficient is the next
step in Henry’s research. A family of five would need a lens
at least three times the size of the device he constructed, which
was designed to heat one liter of water at a time, says Henry.