How’s this for a product?

It directly saves lives. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. It reduces the cost of living for the world’s poorest people. And that’s just the short list.

“It” is the Carocell direct solar water purifier. Developed by Peter Johnstone and manufactured by his company, F CUBED, it would be hard to find a product (or inventor) more deserving of success.

So how does this deceptively simple device deliver such an impressive range of outcomes? By distilling water. And almost as a bonus, the design that provides the greatest distillation efficiency also filters and disinfects the non-distilled, pass-through water.

Life saver

Some two to three billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. Each year 1.5 million children die as a result of poor sanitation. Water wells in parts of Bangladesh and China naturally contain dangerous levels of arsenic. Ground water in many coastal areas is salty, a problem that is only going to get worse with increased water extraction and rising sea levels.

Take any source of water and feed it into a Carocell panel, add sunshine, and the result is clean distilled water. If the main danger posed by the source water is microbial contamination, the non-distilled fraction is filtered and heat-treated to also render it safe for use.

Saving energy and money

Many people in developing countries boil water for drinking. This takes care of the germs, but boiling doesn’t remove arsenic or salt. It also requires a lot of fuel to boil water, and depending on the type and way the fuel used, this can lead to both indoor and outdoor air pollution. Then there is the cost of fuel – a significant burden for low-income earners – and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.

Carocell panels only need energy from the sun. In many cases the source water is supplied by simple gravity feed, though pumps, preferably solar powered, may be needed in some applications. “Each panel represents a four tonne reduction in carbon emissions over its lifespan,” says Peter. In fact, reducing greenhouse gas emissions was a major motivation behind Carcell’s development. As for rolling out the technology to those most in need: “We work through local NGOs who provide micro-finance to people wanting a panel. They can pay it off from their fuel savings over a couple of years.”

The rest is then pure “profit”. Expectations are that buyers will get around 20 years of clean water from each panel. Maintenance is minimal and low-cost. The panels also capture rainwater, thus providing an additional source of clean water.

In developing countries the purchase and installation of panels may be funded in a variety of ways including World Bank programs and the Clean Development Mechanism. F CUBED has landed a contract with the government of Bangladesh to supply 120,000 panels to schools across 12 districts. By manufacturing these panels locally, jobs will be created in Bangladesh and production costs will be reduced. Access to a safe water supply also provides a pretty good reason to go to school.

Sales Manager Stuart Eastaugh talks about the feel good factor for the company’s 30 current employees. “It’s a life-changing product,” he says, “and that’s a big reason why there’s never a shortage of people wanting to work here.”

First world applications

There is also a long list of applications for F CUBED panels in the developed world, including desalination. “We have a contract to supply Ceduna in South Australia with 20% of its town water for 20 years,” Peter says. A six hectare ‘water farm’ will produce 150 megalitres of desalinated water per year at an estimated cost is $3 per kilolitre. This is significantly cheaper than water produced by energy-intensive reverse osmosis plants. And there’s a further bonus. When panels connected in series are fed with seawater they produce an increasingly concentrated brine solution. This “zero liquid discharge” configuration concentrates sea water to the point where sodium chloride (table and industrial salt) and magnesium chloride crystalise out of solution. Both of these products can then be sold.

But wait, there’s more

Carocell panels can be used to treat any type of contaminated water, often at a lower cost than current methods. Landfill leachate, mine waste water, storm water and sewerage are just some of the candidates. In the case of landfill leachate, water-soluble ammonia ends up in the distilled water stream, but this isn’t the problem it might seem. It may not be drinking water, but it’s a great plant fertiliser.

Solar stills are nothing new – they’ve been around for centuries – but several features set Carocell apart: high efficiency of distillation, cost-effectiveness, the level of heat and UV radiation that the source water is subjected to, the scalability from household to town-size systems, and the zero-discharge option.

On the threshold

Peter has invested nine years of his life and millions of dollars into developing the right materials and configurations. “We put a lot of work into the evaporative efficiency,” he says. “It takes time for people to understand the product and then they want to test it for a couple of years. We’ve been on the ground in Cambodia and Bangladesh for nearly three years, and now a number of projects are ready to go.” It also helps that Peter has previous experience in bringing product to market. “It’s an absolute must to have good partners to manage local markets. We have a subsidiary company in Bangladesh, and use contractors in a number of other countries”.

With room in the Melbourne factory to produce up to 300,000 panels per year and plans to make a further 100,000 each year in Bangladesh, F CUBED is looking to sales of around $30 million next year. That will put the company firmly into the profit zone, and Peter is seeking capital of around $25 million to fund the expansion. Stuart estimates that around one third of sales will come from farm-sized systems such as Ceduna; the rest from household, school and hospital systems in sun belt countries around the world.

Not surprisingly, Peter and Stuart are absolute enthusiasts for their product and there’s no doubt that they feel this is just the beginning. New products are currently in the pipeline that will deliver even more benefits. And in the meantime, even at the rate of hundreds of thousands of panels per year, it will take F CUBED a while yet to provide all of those in need with access to safe, clean drinking water.

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