While American cities try to figure out how to deal with lead pipes and an aging power grid, a remote village in Ghana has skipped traditional infrastructure completely. The Watly—a sleek, spaceship-like hub that provides clean drinking water, electricity, and Internet for the entire community—runs entirely on solar power.
"We are a new technological paradigm—something entirely new," says Marco Attisani, founder of Watly, the Barcelona-based company that designed the hub.
The system can bring basic modern services to 3,000 people living off the grid. Eventually, smaller systems could be integrated directly into houses, so some parts of the world might never have the type of infrastructure that's common in the developed world today.
Countries can "leap-frog directly to the 'energynet' without passing though the construction of huge centralized infrastructures," says Attisani. The "energynet" is what the company calls a network of Watlys: a system that combines electricity and water with information technology.
As a water-purification device, the system works as well, or better, than a conventional water treatment plant, the company says. The device can desalinate ocean water, and make any other source of water—from a pond or river, polluted groundwater, or even sewage—safe to drink. Graphene-based technology clean soaps and solvents from the water. Solar energy heats the water in another tank, and then it flows to a distillation unit where it is heated to boiling and then evaporated and mechanically condensed.
The process eliminates bacteria, viruses, pesticides, heavy metals, medicine, and anything else that's undesirable that might be in the water. In the last step, the water flows into another tank that regulates the mineral and pH levels. When someone steps up to the hub, they can refill a jug in 25 seconds.
By combining water purification with electricity production, the designers say the whole system can work more efficiently. Processing the water cools down the solar panels, so they can work at the hottest temperatures—they'd normally overheat and stop producing electricity when it's hotter than 140 degrees Fahrenheit, even though that's when the system is also getting the most sun. As the water cools the panels, it heats up, making purification more efficient.
The company also thinks it's logical to offer water, power, and Internet in one machine. "We could not design a modern solution and not thinking about integrating these three elements altogether," says Attisani. "The beauty is that these services can be generated by exclusively harvesting the solar energy. We provide clean water by leveraging the thermal effect of the solar irradiation. Through photovoltaic technology we generate electricity. Once you have both it's natural to equip our machine with a satellite or 4G connection."
Anyone within an 800-meter radius of the hub can access Internet through it, running on biNU's efficient data protocol for super-fast, data-lite connections that work well even on slow 2G networks. The system also uses the connection to send data back to the company so it can monitor usage and how well the solar panels and the water system are working. Because the purification system doesn't use chemicals, filters, or anything else that needs to regularly be replaced, it should be possible to remotely manage.
The solar panels provide power for anyone to plug in a phone or laptop and charge directly. At other points in the hub, there's a 3-D printer, a UV sterilization chamber, webcams, and even a landing pad for drones.
Watly plans to sell directly to some customers—like nonprofits, or the Army—and to operate like a massive vending machine in others, selling clean water, electricity, and connectivity directly to consumers for small fees. Depending on the model, they believe it's possible to pay for the initial cost of the hub in six to 12 months.
At a later point, Attisani imagines the technology evolving to work directly in houses. "Watly is today and infrastructural solution that has the shapes and design of a vending machine, but tomorrow will be a building," he says. "So you do not need to build and infrastructure empowering dumb and efficient houses, you build from scratch smart and advanced houses that have generate their own electricity, manage their clean water as well as their sewage. They will be computers where we live in."
The market may go farther than poor countries; the company also thinks that sunny, arid places like Qatar or California, with ocean access but little rain, may be interested in the devices. But the people with the most to gain, obviously, are the billions who still live completely off the grid.
"Our mission is to improve global living standards for the most in-need people in the world," he says. "We strive to empower them with new possibilities, by helping them to become healthy, thus dedicating their vital energy to social evolution and education, rather than mere survival. We know that this better future we are aspiring to achieve starts by not leaving 5 billion of us behind."
After successfully piloting their first system in Ghana, Watly is currently crowdfunding their next system on Indiegogo.