A Thirst For Change – WorldWater & Solar Technologies of Princeton

One thousand gallons of water a minute rise up 300 feet to irrigate this farm in San Diego, powered by solar energy alone.

By William Uhl 

Walking with Quentin Kelly, founder and CEO of WorldWater & Solar Technologies, Inc., you can tell he is very enthusiastic about what he does. The walls of his office in Princeton are decorated with maps of third-world countries like the Philippines, with red dots for each solar-powered water pump and purifier installed. Low-rise cubicles have pictures of flowing water and green crops in Haiti, Afghanistan, Darfur, and other places. And the boardroom has a row of photos of solar-powered farms in San Diego and the San Joaquin Valley. But WorldWater didn’t come into existence to fuel agriculture.

Portable pumps and purifiers like Mobile Max enable faster response to disaster relief, whether the crisis is in Fukushima or Florida.

30 Feet Between Life and Death

WorldWater & Solar started due to a foreign crisis. “I was in New York, frankly at a cocktail party in Manhattan, and I met a gentleman who was from Sudan,” said Kelly. Representing then-president of Sudan Gaafar Nimeiry, the man asked Kelly to join a group of Princeton University civil engineers that were helping to clean the water in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. After his arrival, he found more issues than purification.

“I went to the outskirts of town with the director of national water resources for Sudan,” said Kelly.  “There were close to 100,000 people who had come across the desert from Ethiopia, and they were dying out there and they couldn’t come into Khartoum. I asked the director, ‘Well, isn’t there anything to do?’ And he said, ‘What can we do? We don’t have diesel fuel, we don’t have diesel pumps, they’re not on the grid, there’s nothing to be done.’ And I said, ‘What’s the ground water level where they are?’ And he said, ‘The first aquifer would be at about 10 meters,’ so that’s a little over 30 feet. And I said, ‘You’re kidding me. 100,000 people are dying, standing 30 feet over water.’”

Kelly returned with the civil engineers from Princeton University and started to put together a plan. “They put me in touch with more Princeton engineers and a group of five – five of the same guys who had designed and implemented the rocket engine research for the NASA space shuttle – started working with me on my farm in Hopewell.” Inside a barn, his team worked through a dozen iterations before they developed a solution: a solar water pump magnitudes more powerful than anything before. Due to natural fluctuations in solar power due to dimming from clouds and daytime, other pumps would be forced to repeatedly come to a complete halt before starting back up again when the light was stronger. This constant cycle of hard stopping and starting would burn out most pumps within minutes. Kelly’s team’s pump was able to modulate its power, allowing pumps to go as slow or fast as possible without coming to an abrupt halt. Other pumps were stuck at around five horsepower of pumping strength. Their pump went up to 400 horsepower.

Not every WorldWater product is for agriculture or emergencies. This briefcase-sized device pumps and purifies water, provides solar power, and also contains military-grade communications technology.

Water, Water Everywhere

Clean water crises are everywhere, not just overseas. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, WorldWater got a call from the New Jersey governor’s office—Mississippi’s Governor Haley Barbour was looking for water engineers. “We not only had water engineers to send down…but one of our engineers had been working in the back, developing a product,” said Kelly. “That product became the prototype of the Mobile Max Pure. We pulled it out of the area we were working and put it on a pickup truck and took it down to Waveland, Mississippi. Waveland is on I-10, about 40 miles east of New Orleans, and for several months we were the only source of clean water in the southern part of the city of Waveland.”

Soon after, roughly a hundred trailers started ferrying in bottled water for hurricane victims. According to Kelly, the bottled water cost between 50 cents to a dollar per gallon. Meanwhile, the solar pumping and purifying Mobile Max Pure supplied the same amount of water for less than a penny a gallon. They are already working with the local and state governments of current hurricane victims to do much the same. “We’re able to sell these products in cases like right now, for example, the terrible situation that has taken place in Texas and now down in Florida and in the Caribbean Islands. We have these portable water purification systems that can be moved anywhere—we built little trailers and they’re on wheels. They can pump up to 30,000 gallons of contaminated water and purify it per day, and if you wish, you can use them to pump the floodwater out of buildings and basements. Or you can take that very same water and within two minutes, you’ve cleaned it for drinking. So it’s a very, very valuable resource right now.”

According to National Geographic, only 0.007 percent of water on Earth is drinkable and usable by humans. By 2025, 1.8 billion people are estimated to struggle with water scarcity.

A Well of Life

Solar-powered water pumping and purification has uses outside of emergencies. In many underdeveloped countries, a lack of clean, local water has left towns and communities impoverished. WorldWater is planning on expanding to these areas, starting with Burkina Faso, a landlocked country north of Ghana. Starting in June and ending in September, rainfall floods the land. Afterwards, people, most often girls, must walk several miles to bring water back home—and the water is commonly muddied and possible infected with parasites or disease.

WorldWater was approached by an American non-governmental organization that had worked in Burkina Faso many years ago, and found that a properly-located water basin could drain the floodwaters into wells to provide year-round water. WorldWater was the next step.

With a budget of $38,000, pumping water was just the start. “It enables them to purify that water, and we also give them enough water to irrigate larger fields using our motor drives,” said Kelly. “Then we talked about putting lights at the school. We’re going to build a little micro-grid of electricity, so there’ll be lighting at the school, and power, and we’ve determined we can probably get a well by the school which will make the school the center for the whole village. We’ve determined we’re going to do this for 20 villages.”

“We’ll be working with the government of Burkina Faso, and I have a temporary OK from the U.S. Export-Import bank to help finance this,” continued Kelly. “If you multiply 20 villages—and that’ll be a pilot—times $38,000, you’re up to about $760,000. Then you’ve got to have the costs of building the basin and maybe drilling some wells, so let’s say you can do the whole thing for 20 villages for about a million dollars. You’ve now put 400 girls back to school per village. They had 300 boys in the school, and all of a sudden that year, they then had 700 kids. Now the second village has been completed and the same process is working. We’re going to replicate this; there are 8,000 villages. I’ve met with the ambassador from Burkina Faso, and he said, ‘Wow, we could do all 8,000 villages,’ and I said, ‘Let’s start with 20 and then we’ll keep on going.’”

Learning about the different inventions at WorldWater feels futuristic, and not just because of the technological bounds. It’s not futuristic in the sense of Back to the Future’s flying cars, but more like Star Trek’s optimistic vision of a more harmonious, techno-utopian future. “This morning I had a weekly staff meeting, and I said, ‘You know, folks, what we’re doing in Burkina Faso right now, we can replicate in countries all over the world,’” said Kelly. “The benefits are so far-reaching, it’s a wonderful sort of living that we make here.”