Hacking For Good: Watly

Here at Hackaday, we often encourage people to hack for the greater good through contests. Sure, it is fun to create a wireless barbeque thermometer or an electronic giant foam finger. At the end of the day, though, those projects didn’t really change the world, or maybe they just change a little corner of the world.

I recently saw a commercial device that made me think about how more hacker-types (including myself) ought to be working more on big problems. The device was Watly. The Italian and Spanish start up company claims the car-sized device is a “solar-powered computer.” No offense to them, but that’s the worst description for Watly that you could pick and still be accurate.

So what is Watly? It looks like some sort of temporary shelter or futuristic campsite equipment. However, it contains an array of solar cells and a very large battery. I know you are thinking, “Great. A big solar charger. Big deal.” But there’s more to Watly then just that.

The first Watly rolled out in Ghana, in Sub-Saharan Africa. About 67% of the population there–over 600 million people–do not have electricity. Nearly 40% do not have safe water. Watly uses a graphene-based filter and then uses its electricity to distill safe drinking water by boiling it. The company claims the device can deliver about 5,000 liters of safe drinking water per day.

If you read Hackaday, it is a good bet you have easy access to safe drinking water, electricity, and Internet. Think for a minute what it would be like if you didn’t. Here on the Gulf Coast of the United States, we sometimes have hurricanes or other storms that show us what this is like for a week or two. But even then, people come with water in trucks or cans. Generators show up to let you run your fridge for a few hours. Even more important: you know the situation is only temporary. What if you really thought those services would never be restored?

The portable device can provide power, water, and wireless Internet service and can last for 15 years. Watly intends to create a larger version with even more capacity.  The project received funding from the EU Horizon 2020 program that we’ve mentioned before. Creating clean water is something that can help lots of people. So is using less water. If you want some more inspiration for tackling water problems, we’ve got some links for you.

36 thoughts on “Hacking For Good: Watly

  1. Perhaps a case of too much tech for the region? I recently saw a project that generated gas / heat from large plastic bags filled with cow dung. Very low tech and low cost so much more viable for dirt poor nations

  2. Interestingly, graphene was originally predicted to be impermeable to water vapor. Water molecules are bigger than the “holes” in the carbon rings, so it doesn’t get through.

    Then someone at MIT (IIRC) did the actual experiment, and discovered that not only is it permeable to water vapor, the water vapor acts like the graphene isn’t there at all! They had to go back and take another look at the analysis to discover why this was.

    (The cause can be found on the first image here: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1112.3488.pdf)

    Chemistry is still very much an experimental science. We have good theories on how the mechanisms work, but we can’t predict *which* mechanism will dominate in any situation. Most of chemistry engineering is doing things that’s already been done, whose outcome is already known.

    (And even that’s not completely predictable, as anyone who’s ever tried metal plating has discovered.)

    A friend has been working on water purification for undeveloped areas for the past 20 years, and there’s a raft of engineering problems that need to be solved. Also, Dean Kamen has a purification system based on Sterling engine:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slingshot_%28water_vapor_distillation_system%29

    Bringing clean water to undeveloped nations is most definitely a laudable goal.

      1. Now that I think about it, no, you’re right.

        The vast majority of electrical engineers work for utilities. A circuit board to them is something that gets swapped out when it goes bad.

        Another large majority of engineers are really application implementers, rather than published researchers. But that’s true of any field, the majority of workers in a specialized field are not researchers, they are busy solving particular applications.

  3. Before I go dig deeper, lets do some maths to check if my gut feeling is right on this one. Energy per day from one square meter of solar panel is roughly 4.8kWh (less in a lot of places, but this was the first number I found). Energy to distil a litre of water = energy to heat it up + energy to turn it into steam, 336 + 2260 call it 2.6kJ, or 720Wh. So one square meter of panel can (with 100% efficient boiling) distil (4.8/0.72) about 7 L of water. For 5000L/day (as claimed) you’d need >700 square meters of solar panel. Hmm… I was right :P
    To give them the benefit of the doubt, maybe they are just filtering it and then boiling it to kill anything left, rather than distilling all the water that goes through it?

    1. What if you took the heat from the steam and used it to heat up the water at the intake? Then you’re recycling a good bit of that energy used to boil the water in the first place.

      1. Ha, you beat me to it, that’s apparently what they’re doing. In reading up on the method used, apparently some systems recycle as much as 98% of the energy used – the outgoing water is just a few degrees warmer than the water going in!

          1. Bingo. Also, about the title – unless you’re fortunate enough to do research for some grant-wielding humanitarian think tank, you aren’t likely to ever be in a situation to can actually help anyone meaningfully. Sure, if you see a problem and know that you can solve it, by all means go for it – but it isn’t possible to “hack for good” on purpose: that’s how “solutions” looking for a problem are born.

          2. Came here to say exactly that, solar panels are ~20% efficient at best, why would you spend $$$ on solar panels and throw 80% of the useful energy away if your aim is to heat stuff up?

          3. Yup, unless you have electricity you can throw away, using photovoltaic panels for electric heat is among the least sensible things you can do.

            A better one might be using the heating-type solar panel that was popular in the 1970s. Running a liquid through black tubes. Or just a greenhouse type arrangement with the salt water in it.

            A while ago there was a plan in the New Scientist that was, at the time, due to be implemented, but on a larger scale for richer Arab countries with oil. Apparently they were burning fuel for desalination. This used a giant greenhouse, with slabs of wet cardboard, sprayers and fans, to produce water vapour to distill. The energy for the fans could be solar if necessary. It’s handy that countries most in need of water usually have a lot of solar radiation falling on them.

            Fitting in a power station and Internet though is a nice idea, it’s like civilisation in a box. All of those things can help a community out of poverty.

          4. I doubt that a passive solar heating system can boil water without concentrating solar power, which require solar tracking and that is a mechanical device requiring regular maintenance.

    2. Now I am also skeptical that they can get 5000L a day, but keep in mind that they have some funky heat exchangers. The energy needed to distill it could be reduced if you heat the incoming water to cool down the steam. Still, on their website they claim to generate 70kWh per day, I just don’t see that distilling 5000L of water, let alone having enough leftover for free electricity for everyone.

      1. You’re right, vapour compression distillation uses some very cool heat exchangers (see my other comments). As you say, still sceptical since even with the higher efficiency, 70kWh doesn’t seem enough. Found a value of 0.085 kWh/gallon as ‘amazingly efficient’ (http://www.aquatechnology.net/vaporcompressiondistillers.html) – so that’s 3000 litres per day! Another place (http://www.wqpmag.com/water-distillation) listed 0.12kWh/gallon, => 2100L/day. Not too bad – maybe they say 5000L as best case when no power is used for anything else?

    3. Oops, was supposed to be 2.6 mega-joules (2600kJ).
      But, I learnt something. They claim to use vapor compression distillation, which apparently uses the otherwise ‘wasted’ energy from latent heat of vaporization and the hot outgoing water to make the process far more efficient. Replace the 2600kJ with 114.12 and their idea starts to look a little more feasible. Still far fetched (especially because elsewhere they claim 3 million L per year, or >8000L per day, but out of the realm of science fiction at least.

    4. You can also pull a vacuum to lower the boiling point of the water. Industrial distillation is done this way.

      Source: I’m a Marine engineer. This is done on ships using waste heat from the engines.

    5. Surely a better idea would be using a big fresnel lens that tracked the sun to focus the suns rays and boil the water? You could cheaply add this while keeping the solar electric as a backup (if cloudy, night time etc)

  4. As someone living and working on a startup in Ghana, more technology isn’t really needed to solve access to water or electricity or faster internet…. those are all systemic, complex problems with what the society demands of their leaders, and vice versa. The country is not dirt poor.

    That said, these sorts of initiatives should be for-profit, otherwise there’s no incentive to make a solution that’ll work for more than a year or two, and the crappy situation perpetuates…

    1. Many years ago I used to work with remote 3rd world communities. Most of them had a graveyard of past projects.
      None of this stuff works longterm unless it is tech that is understood by the locals, that they can fix without requiring expensive 1st world parts when funding has ceased, and as said no-one is going to fix it unless there’s an incentive. Most people are too busy just feeding themselves.

      Low tech with locally available materials is how to do it, and it’s got to be worth someone’s while to divert their energy from feeding their family to do it.

      1. Which is why one of the most successful “tech” cottage industries is using solar power and car batteries to charge mobile phones for people in rural areas. People will literally walk for a day, to pay for their phone to be recharged – at the time as trading at the local market.

    2. Ultimately, yes, the problem is political, on a wide scale. Only recently have Western governments started to outlaw vulture funds (which isn’t the same as STOPPING them, but making them illegal helps). In the past groups have bought up debt owed by poor countries, cheaply because it was considered unlikely ever to be repaid. A vulture fund (of this type, there are other types) gets a sniff that said country might be getting a bit of international aid soon. They buy up debt, then demand the debt’s paid out of the aid money that was intended to save lives.

      A similar thing happens with banks, whereby General Butt-Fucking Naked declares himself the government of some country. Banks lend his “government” money, for palaces and armaments. 10 minutes later the General is deposed, but the people are still saddled with “their” debt.

      Most of Africa’s mineral and oil wealth is “owned” by big Western companies, who pay private security armies a few shekels to keep their own people away from their shit, that is the natives who aren’t working for them, earning half a crust for digging millions of dollars out of the ground.

      Poverty is caused by the rich. Poor countries would be a whole lot better off if powerful companies weren’t constantly robbing them. That’s why Africa never seems to get any better. In any conflict, at least one of the crazy armies full of child-soldiers is being supported by some Western backer. If you’ve forgotten where the Taliban came from, there’s lots of quotes from Reagan about them.

      In this case though, if you’re a geek, who’s good at putting machines together, what can you do? Put a machine together and at least hope it makes a few lives better. Until there’s a beam that can neutralise greed and instil basic humanity into the psychopaths that are abusing the place, it’s the best a nerd can do.

    1. I thought the same, but apparently the output water is only a few degrees above the input water – they use outgoing water to warm incoming water and save energy. Redoing the maths, their claimed 70kWh is enough to produce 2-3000 L of water based on the values I could find for efficiency of Vapour Compression Distillation.

  5. In summary:
    The EU is sending money to Africa (via socialist spending) so humans, which the EU doesn’t want in their country, can more comfortably live in an inhospitable area which will always lack the most basic resources required for a self-sustaining society.

    Maybe it’s just me here, but kinda feels short sighted.

    Why not just transport the ~100 Africans this thing could hydrate to the EU for several orders of magnitude less money? To save a few bucks, make it ~100 Romanian/Greece/etc refugees.

    1. They are coming to come anyway. To those countries that have so much money they can spend it on a country who cannot look after it’s own citizens.
      This socialist spending is a root cause of the migration problem Europe is facing as people look for a better life. If these countries can afford to do this, what utopia the citizens of those countries must live in by comparison.

      1. Something was lost in Google Translate dave.
        Is the EU a utopia, or do they have a money/migration problem?
        IMHO it’s pointless to send ANY relief to a country which lacks the resources to self-sustain (basically 99% of Africa). It’s like continuing to prop a ‘future’ market that has proven it can not survive on its own…. like solar.
        It’s even more fruitless if the EU itself needs those resources, no?
        Oh well, at least they created jobs……

  6. Noble concept, I guess, but it ticks off just one or two too many buzzwords for me to think the creators are really creating the “best” solution for the problem.

    Wi-Fi? Yep.
    4G? Yep.
    RFID? Sure.
    Graphene? Neat.
    Nearly 20 different types of sensors? Could be useful I guess.
    Touchscreens? Yep.
    Wireless charging? Got it.
    Solar power? Uh-huh.
    Facial recognition? Okay.
    Cloud management? Check.
    Drones? Alright.
    3D printers? Seriously, enough already!

    Also, nothing makes me think “these guys really have helping impoverished areas figured out” like RFID-enabled, proprietary valved, per-person authenticated and usage tracked water jugs. With “sponsor logo” accommodations and accent lighting.

    1. You forgot the Arduino, Raspberry and Beaglebone…

      But it works with IoT on the other hand.

      Most places cant even find 5000 litres of dirty water a day to destill, that´s the problem.

  7. many places in the world do not even have water to distil. I often wonder if these places with “no water” really have no water? Is there water vapour in the air of a typical dry desert? i.e. suppose you are in a desert and you cool a surface exposed to air, will there be water to condense on it? is it really a lack of water or just expensive to seperate it from the environment?

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