Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink

Asha Suppiah's desalination technology could help address the global shortage of safe drinking water
September 25, 2007
© Jamie Buisman

Before she was old enough to drive, Asha Suppiah learned how to navigate the intricate channels of Canada’s patent law. And for a good reason; she developed an original technique for turning saltwater into drinkable water—an invention that could save many lives around the world.

Asha’s path to innovation began when she was just 13, when she saw first-hand what it really meant to be thirsty. While visiting members of her extended family in the southern Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, she was struck by the harsh realities of water scarcity. She found out that even relatively affluent people cannot count on water flowing whenever a tap is turned on. Meanwhile, women in poor villages must walk miles every day just to carry back what little drinkable water there is from the nearest source.

According to WaterCan, a Canadian registered charity that works to bring clean drinking water to the world’s poorest, 2.2 million people die from preventable diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation conditions every year. That’s equivalent to 6,000 deaths every day, or one every 15 seconds. As a Grade 6 student from the Ottawa Valley town of Deep River, where she had always taken the unlimited availability of fresh water for granted, Asha’s experience in India raised some hard questions.

“ You have an ocean around you, and it’s a tropical country,” she says. “ Why can’t you use two things you have so freely to produce fresh water?”

Frustrated by the situation, she began investigating the prospect of desalination—the evaporation of seawater so that its salt content is left behind and the resulting vapour can be condensed as potable water. As part of a science fair project, she discovered that any widespread application of this process has been held back by two obstacles: high cost and low efficiency.

That was when her creative juices started flowing. Asha first worked with a solar still, which involves putting a closed container full of seawater in the sun to be heated. In a place like southern India, where temperatures can soar, this process should work well. However, its efficiency—a measure of actual performance versus ideal—depends on the water’s surface area, where the evaporation actually takes place.

Asha proposed adding cotton to the process, which would absorb the water. The intertwined threads create an interface with the air, and therefore the exposed surface has a larger area than any flat area of standing water. The effect resulted in a 100 percent increase in efficiency of the system.

She then took the idea further, making a cylinder of corrugated fine mesh screen that provided a larger surface area for the water to wick on, yet in a more compact container. The efficiency of the system once again doubled.

The added bonus is that there isn’t a need for an external fuel source, since a solar-powered motor moved the water. The resulting cost and energy efficiency turned out to be higher than anything in the marketplace.

“ Right now, solar desalinators are about 30 to 40 percent efficient,” she says. “ I was getting up to 70 or 80 percent, and this was with a very simple model I made at home.”

Asha built the equipment for science fairs while she was still in Grades 7 and 8, but the full extent of her accomplishment for real-world application was readily apparent. She worked with a lawyer to patent her technology.

At the same time, she continued to distinguish herself at the Canada Wide Science Fairs, racking up honours, including the Pfizer Canada Award of Excellence, as well as three gold and three silver medals. Most recently she has been named one of Canada’s “Top 20 Under 20”, a national recognition of leadership and achievement by Youth in Motion, an organization that aims to inspire youth career programs.

Today, at 20, Asha is entering her third year of genetics studies at the University of Western Ontario. Her plan is a career in medicine or medical research, helping people in ways that improve their quality of life. And for that same reason, she remains eager to pursue the goal she set for herself in elementary school—bringing fresh water to those who need it most. She actively seeks sponsors to commercialize her technology, hoping to mass produce it as a simple, affordable solution for people throughout the world.

“ As soon as I can, I want to set this up,” she says. “ We need to because so many people are dying from lack of drinking water.”