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UNC-Charlotte alumni create buoy to make seawater drinkable

Chris Matthews (left) and Justin Sonnett, co-founders of Saros, watch their invention, a wave powered buoy that desalinates water and makes it clean to drink. Photo Courtesy of Saros.

Chris Matthews (left) and Justin Sonnett, co-founders of Saros, watch their invention, a wave powered buoy that desalinates water and makes it clean to drink. Photo Courtesy of Saros.

Sonnett, the project’s director of research and development, said EcoH2O is working on its second prototype of the buoy, which is the main component of the Swell Actuated Reverse Osmosis System, SAROS.

According to a statement by the SAROS project, as the buoy rolls with the tide, it harvests the kinetic energy of the waves and sends water back to shore to begin the desalination process. As the water is transported, it undergoes reverse osmosis, in which pressure is applied to extract the fresh water.

“(Reverse osmosis) separates the salt from the seawater, but it also separates viruses, bacteria and all that other bad stuff,” Sonnett said. “The water is extremely clean and ready to drink.”

He said the current prototype is designed to clean 400-500 gallons, and they anticipate the planned first production unit will create 3,500 gallons of fresh water.

Matthews, SAROS’ director of engineering, said previous inventors have had complications with inadvertently taking in large amounts of salty brine in machines, which can hurt marine life by decreasing levels of salinity.

He said EcoH2O partnered with water companies to minimize the issue.

“They have really efficient energy recovery systems that take the energy in the brine output and recover it,” Matthews said.

“It’s really helpful for us because, especially in our small scale, we can run at conditions that put out much less salty brine.”

John McCord, associate director of education and outreach at the UNC Coastal Studies Institute, said the institute has provided SAROS with logistical support and a permitted ocean area to test the device.

The institute supports other research projects through its renewable ocean energy program, including a Gulf Stream power assessment and the testing of marine hydrokinetic devices.

He said he believes the SAROS project will be most beneficial in times of crisis.

“With increasing scarcity of drinkable water on the planet, something like this could be especially useful in coastal towns, both inside and outside of North Carolina, specifically in disaster-relief situations when a power grid might have been compromised,” McCord said.

Matthews said one of the longterm goals of SAROS is to help provide fresh water to those without access to it, and they are considering Haiti and Puerto Rico as locations for their first two pilot projects.

“We want to provide fresh water to those people sustainably and cheaply, which is something we just don’t have the ability to do right now with our current desalination technology,” he said. “I think we have a good chance of doing that.”

@jared_webby

state@dailytarheel.com

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