A team of engineers installed a water distillation system on the back of a solar power cell, thus creating a device that doubles as both an energy generator and a water purifier. “It’s really good engineering at work,” George Ni, an engineer who worked on water distillation projects during his time as a graduate student at MIT, said.
These machines use the sunlight harvested by the photovoltaic cells in the solar panels to provide electricity, while heat from the panel also stimulates evaporation in the attached water distiller. From there, the vapor will be sent through a porous membrane that will filter out salt and other contaminants, thus producing clean water. The study’s co-author Peng Wang says “it doesn’t affect the electricity production…and at the same time, it gives you bonus freshwater.”
If implemented at solar farms, for example, then these dual-operational machines could help meet the globally increasing demand for both clean, fresh water and solar-powered alternative energy. During one of the experiments performed, the prototype device converted about 11% of the incoming light into electricity–which is right on par with commercial solar cells. While on the lower end, it is still a huge success for the team. When testing the water distillation feature, dirty water and salt water was fed into a device approximately one meter wide, and after it filtered out the pollutants, was able to generate about 1.7 kilograms (60 ounces) of clean water per hour.
Ni wants to know what’s next. “How are you doing to deploy this? Is it going to be on a roof?” His questions bring about the next phase of research and experimentation: practicality. The team now has to design models that will prove usable in various situations and applications, such as on the roofs of homes and floating in the ocean. Stability and structural security are a must, as are efficiency, cost, the materials used, and many other factors.
While this project is still in the middling stages, the concept behind it is quite extraordinary. It’s a way to combine two of the greatest green energy initiatives, and if made applicable to real-life situations, could open up a whole slew of future possibilities.