Solar still research gets $1.4 million boost from Army

Left to right: Qiaoqiang Gan, UB professor of electrical engineering, and Haomin Song, a UB electrical engineering PhD graduate, test materials in the lab. Both are also members of the Sunny Clean Water team. The photograph was taken prior to the pandemic. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

A UB-led team is developing a sun-powered water purifier that could provide drinking water in resource-scarce environments

Release Date: October 26, 2020


BUFFALO, N.Y. — University at Buffalo engineering researchers have received federal support to develop a portable solar still — a device that generates clean water using the power of the sun.

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory is funding the project with $1.4 million.

The technology could provide drinking water in regions where water is scarce, such as disaster zones or remote areas where infrastructure is sparse, says Qiaoqiang Gan, PhD, professor of electrical engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who is leading the effort.

“Water scarcity is a global challenge,” Gan says. “Societies are facing higher and higher pressure to obtain clean water, especially drinkable water, due to pollution and many other environmental concerns. So we are developing technology to use solar energy for water purification. This can be particularly valuable for generating water during a crisis, or in harsh environments where resources and infrastructure are limited.”

“Access to clean water is something we often take for granted, but its value cannot be understated,” said Congressman Brian Higgins. “This federal award invests in exciting local research and development that employs clean energy to deliver clean water. We commend the UB team leading the way in this innovative project.”

Gan and colleagues have launched a startup, Sunny Clean Water, to bring the solar still to consumers.

The idea of using the sun to purify water is ancient, and solar stills aren’t new. But Gan’s team has made a series of scientific discoveries that could boost the efficiency of these devices, enabling them to generate large volumes of water more quickly.

Solar stills use heat from the sun to evaporate water, leaving salt, bacteria and grime behind. Then, the vapor cools and condenses as purified water in a clean container.

Gan’s research group at UB has reported innovations in water vaporization and radiative cooling, and the aim is to apply these advances to increase the rate at which a solar still can produce drinkable water. The model of solar still the team is developing would float on a lake or another body of water.

The new federal funding will support further studies in Gan’s lab, with some work subcontracted to Sunny Clean Water. Research efforts will include testing promising materials and solar still designs, including scalable systems that work in cold environments. The goal is to speed development of prototypes, Gan says.

Co-founders of Sunny Clean Water include Gan; Zongmin Bei, PhD, senior research support specialist and adjunct instructor in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Zongfu Yu, PhD, Jack St. Clair Kilby Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gan’s team and Sunny Clean Water have previously received support from Launch NY, Columbia Technology Ventures and NEXUS-NY, which are supported by NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority); the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program; the UB Technology Transfer team; and the NSF I-Corps Site Program, coordinated by UB’s Business and Entrepreneur Partnerships office.


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Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.