Harnessing the power of the sun to purify water--it’s a simple idea that’s existed for centuries. But a Buffalo-based startup’s innovation is advancing the technology involved to create a product that could one day help everyone from outdoor adventurers to hurricane survivors and people in places where resources are scarce.
The startup is called Sunny Clean Water. It’s a University at Buffalo spin-off company whose technology is based off several patents acquired through UB research. The product the team is developing creates clean drinking water by filtering out impurities. It does this through an extremely cost-effective, efficient solar vapor generator--or solar still--that uses patented carbon nanomaterials and thermal isolation processes.
Sunny Clean Water’s solar still is significant because it can produce up to 5.2 gallons of clean water each day--and more than that if multiple stills are linked. The solar still, which can be used on any body of water--fresh, salt or contaminated--removes salt, bacteria, viruses, and heavy metals from the water collected.
It began as a collaboration between researchers at UB, Fudan University (China), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The company was subsequently formed, with support from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program, to bring the product to market.
“Sunny Clean Water’s major aim is to deliver a portable solar still system to address personal water purification needs for emergency, disaster relief, outdoor activities, and to help residents in resource limited areas,” said company founder and lead researcher Qiaoqiang Gan, an associate professor of electrical engineering in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
In addition to Gan, the original team included UB engineering doctoral students Youhai Liu and Matthew Singer, who served as the company’s CEO up until about a year ago when he decided to step down to focus on his Ph.D. studies, as well as Chief Technology Officer Haomin Song, who obtained his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from UB. Gan and Song both spoke at the Global Water Summit in Paris last spring.
The company plans to work with not-for-profit organizations, as well as federal and other public agencies, to realize its dream. In addition, Gan said, Sunny Clean Water is actively communicating with private investors, as well as recruiting new talent to strengthen its business development and engineering teams. Within the next two years, the company aims to complete its supply chain to bring the product to market. It’s already developed two prototypes and performed field tests in the Caribbean, Rochester, and Saudi Arabia.
Read about how Launch NY’s Emerging Cleantech Opportunity Incubator is helping Sunny Clean Water with its cleantech initiatives here.
Gan and other key players in Sunny Clean Water’s development say the company’s initial success wouldn’t be possible without the support of a nurturing entrepreneurial ecosystem. Startup-friendly programs in Western New York and at the state and federal levels have helped Sunny Clean Water generate buzz while bringing its product closer to being available to the people who need it.
“Buffalo, and Western New York in general, is a hotbed for innovation and entrepreneurship. There are an unbelievable amount of resources for manufacturing, engineering, financial, and business development,” said Singer.
He credits NEXUS-NY, a Rochester-based clean energy startup accelerator, for playing a key role in advancing the company’s progress. Last year NEXUS-NY accepted the company into Phase 2 of its program, which came with $40,000 and an opportunity to pitch in front of venture capitalists and industry partners from New York State.
“That program, paired with our research conducted at UB, made our decision to stay in Western New York very easy,” Singer said, adding: “There’s such a collaborative atmosphere in Western New York. There is healthy competition, but in general, everyone wants to help.”
Toward that end, Sunny Clean Water has received critical mentorship from NEXUS-NY and UB’s Technology Transfer office, which helps UB faculty members commercialize their innovations. Both programs offered key support in developing the business, said Gan, noting that as an academic researcher, growing a business isn’t his area of expertise.
Sunny Clean Water’s potential to solve a major global problem has garnered the company coverage in a variety of media outlets, including Salon.com, Smithsonian magazine, and Science magazine, and for good reason. Its low-cost evaporative process is more than 88 percent efficient in converting solar light into heat. In fact, the company says, its solar still generates water three times faster than any other still.
“Fresh water scarcity is one of the most significant global challenges,” said Gan. “If this effort is successful, it will have a huge impact.”
And Buffalo’s supportive startup environment will have played a huge role in making it happen.
“You don’t have to go to Silicon Valley or Boston anymore to start a tech company,” said Singer. “Western New York is up and coming faster than people realize, and there’s plenty of resources to go around.”