For the first time in a long time, California residents are beginning to wonder what would happen if we ran out of water to drink. But for many low-income people who live in the Central Valley, it’s not a hypothetical situation – it’s the reality they live with every day.
Facing water polluted by runoff from farms and groundwater too salty to drink, residents of the state’s disadvantaged farming communities often struggle to find safe sources of tap water.
That doesn’t sit well with Cal Poly Pomona civil engineering Professor Ali Sharbat, who studies water for a living.
“These folks work very hard. They get up early in the morning and come home late at night,” Sharbat says. “We are expecting them to produce food for the country, but they don’t even have good drinking water. That’s not fair.”
Last year, Sharbat received a $100,000 grant from the federal Bureau of Reclamation to study ways of turning brackish (slightly salty) groundwater, which is plentiful but unpalatable, into something drinkable.
Since then, Sharbat and a team of 11 engineering students have been on a mission to do something no one else has done before — build an affordable desalination unit compact enough to easily fit in a family home like any other kitchen appliance.
“We didn’t have a model to follow. We had to invent the design from scratch,” Sharbat says. “It was like trial and error. For any single step forward, we had to do ten tries.”
Twelve months later, they have a working product, and it’s “totally solar-powered,” Sharbat says, so it produces no greenhouse gases and costs its owners nothing in electricity to run.
“We want this system to be off-the-shelf,” he says. “We want to go to Amazon, type in ‘solar-powered desalination’ and see this item. We want this to be affordable to families.”
Right now, the estimated cost per unit is about $4,500, which would be too much for the lower-income farming families. Sharbat is hoping the government will be able to provide financial assistance to those folks.
“We would like to see government support in putting one of these in every house in one of these disadvantaged communities in California,” he says.
The team is now seeking patents for their design, and the federal government has taken a keen interest in the project. It’s been shipped to a national laboratory in New Mexico for further study, and the one team member who didn’t graduate this year is working with federal government scientists throughout the summer.