Andy Chen ’16, John McGuinnis ’16 and Zachary Pilson ’16 are applying the science behind a survivalist water-collecting technique to develop an alternative energy-generating device.
Typically made in the desert, solar stills are made by digging a small hole in sand and covering it with plastic. The sun’s heat evaporates water from the moist sand and the resulting condensation collects on the plastic film and drips into a cup that is also placed in the hole. With a Levitt Research Group Grant, the team is utilizing a similar method to generate energy from falling condensation.
The simple apparatus the group developed consists of cotton fiber wicks, two plastic cones and a bowl. The group will also attach a water wheel and turbine in the near future. Water is drawn up through the wicks by capillary action and then condenses at the top of the inverted bowl. It will then drip onto the water wheel to power the turbine and be reused in the cycle.
Associate Professor of Geosciences Todd Rayne, a hydrogeologist, is helping the group members with their project. Chen said “Professor Rayne is a great resource and has supported us from the beginning.” The group originally planned on using small tubes filled with sand to raise the water, but Rayne recommended they use more efficient cotton fiber wicks.
Existing steam energy systems capture heat released from burning hydrocarbons and use evaporated water to power generators. The students are hoping to capitalize on condensation’s gravitational potential energy and have dripping water, rather than rising steam, power a wheel connected to a turbine.
Every falling water drop possesses a certain amount of energy and the group can boost their apparatus’ power output by increasing the evaporation and condensation frequency. Depending on their apparatus’ size, they had different volumes of water that they wished to cycle through the system. McGuinnis said that the group “wanted to create an efficient cycle within the machine this summer,” and their trials thus far have been successful.
The team experimented with different compounds that have lower boiling points than water, such as acetone and pentane. These compounds would both heat up and cycle faster than water, but water was easier to work with, according to Chen. He added, “we didn’t have to worry about chemical safety or pressure engineering while working with simple H2O.”
Pilson remarked that 1.2 billion people around the world do not have access to electricity and 1.8 billion people do not have access to clean water. He said that the Levitt group’s apparatus could address these issues, as it both produces energy and purifies the water with only one evaporation cycle. Impurities are removed from the water during the evaporation process, meaning the apparatus produces distilled water after the vapor condenses.
“Ideally this would be able to power whole communities,” Pilson added. Whether the apparatuses are placed on roofs in New York City or outside small villages in Africa, the team believes the it can be a simple, low-maintenance and self-sustaining energy source.
Chen explained that the next step for the group is to obtain a provisional patent that will protect their concept. The students will also apply to the Clinton Global Initiative University, a meeting where students, youth organizations, topic experts and celebrities come together to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges. Nearly $500,000 in funding was awarded to conference participants in April, and Pilson hopes the Levitt researchers can acquire more support to continue developing their alternative energy source.
Chen is a graduate of Mount Lebanon High School (Pa.), McGuinnis is a graduate of University School (Ohio) and Pilson is a graduate of Portledge School (N.Y.).