The Optimist Citizen
Henry Glogau

25-Year-Old Innovator Creates a Device That Can Convert Ocean Water Into Drinking Water at Zero Cost.

The Lexus Design Award 2021 winner Henry Glogau from New Zealand has devised a portable solar distiller to produce safe drinking water and electricity at almost zero cost.

The world is growing at a breakneck pace. Be it science, technology, or medicine: it has witnessed a massive transformation. However, a major chunk of the world population does not have access to even basic resources. The situation is grave in remote areas where economic backwardness and an apparent disconnect with technological advancements push them back. These issues become more critical when private companies own around 95% of local resources. This has been a case for many areas in Chile. Drinking water and the power supply is barely available for the native citizens. The people who live by massive amount of seawater barely have access to drinking water.

Henry Glogau - Portable Solar Distiller
An Architecture student Henry Glogau has come up with a system that uses two abundantly available resource – saline water and sunlight to solve the crisis. It can tap into local resources, seawater and sunlight, to produce clean drinking water, light, and energy. His innovation, Portable Solar Distiller, recently won the prestigious Lexus Design Award 2021.

Henry Glogau - Solar Desalination Skylight/Portable Solar Distiller
Diagramatic explainer of the Solar Desalination Skylight/Portable Solar Distiller invented by Henry Glogau, Lexus Award Winner 2021

What is a Portable Solar Distiller?

The Portable Solar Distiller aims to provide clean drinking water and electricity. Henry designed it keeping in mind the need to use readily available local resources to create something for the upliftment of informal settlement communities. He explained, “The prefabricated model comprises a plastic canopy to hold the water, an internal funnel to collect the liquid and a bamboo support structure.” The design is such that it can be adjusted to use only canopy and funnel, thus suspending it freely between the buildings without the bamboo support. Additionally, the model provides shading space underneath for people to relax.

“The technology I worked upon is the hydrological cycle we probably all have studied in school. I didn’t intervene to produce anything new. This system has been in place for millions of years. I just tried to mimic that in a controlled environment,” he adds. 

Portable Solar Distiller
Portable Solar Distiller

How Does a Portable Solar Distiller Work?

Talking about the science behind it, Henry explains that the distiller works on the principle of solar desalination. It essentially depends on two distinct processes – evaporation and condensation. Two durable plastics are sewed together to make the canopy. While the upper layer is a transparent UV resistant material that allows solar energy to reach the water, the bottom layer is a heat absorbent plastic that contains the water. Once the seawater is collected on the canopy, energy from the sunlight separates the contaminants and freshwater through evaporation. The vaporised freshwater condenses as droplets on the inner surface. This water is directly accessible through a tap and gets stored in a bottle or containers. The leftover brine i.e saltwater then generates electricity to light up the area at night as salt battery powered LEDs.

Solar Desalination Skylight
Solar Desalination Skylight – Using leftover salt to power LEDs.

“The distiller can purify up to 18 litres of polluted water in 12 hours,” says Henry. He further added that this low-tech passive design is cheap and provides safe drinking water and light. It could be a game-changer in economically backward parts of the world. One can easily replicate and assemble this versatile structure with the help of local resource production and community architecture. Moreover, its multi-functional capabilities render it a portable, deployable infrastructure.

Journey to Creating Innovation and Impact

Henry recalls the journey that prompted him to design an out-of-the-box innovation to serve society. During his education at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen, he visited Chile. While working with a local NGO ‘Techo,’ he came across how the remote community Mejillones faced extreme climatic conditions and monopoly of private players on natural resources. He shares, “I spent time with the informal settlement communities and tried figuring out their challenges.” He dug deep into their existing problems, particularly access to fresh water and electricity and came up with a low-tech design. A solar desalination skylight sounded like a probable solution. He improvised it further to develop the portable solar distiller.

Henry Glogau - Chile
Henry working with the community in Chile

Henry wanted to utilise existing ideas that have been around for billions of years. For him, the way through was to use natural and clean energy sources to deliver an impact. “I worked upon the existing ways of nature to build something effective and fruitful for sustainable communities.” He recounts his initial experience and challenges while designing the distiller. It took him some time to build trust with the informal community settlement alongside work to make his idea more integrated with the social spaces. However, his passion for creating a circular economy and self-sustaining communities kept him going.

Way Forward

Henry Glogau finds it is beautiful to see how one idea can spark an inspiration, break down the barriers, and make the communities empower themselves. He desires to work along similar lines and collaborate with experts and NGOs worldwide to improve the existing design and take it to the next level. The future will see scarcity and privatization of resources and climate change. He looks forward to developing his skills to address some of the pressing problems across the globe. He notes, “There are interesting opportunities across the world. I would love to pursue them holistically. It would be exciting to see how small architectural changes can create an impact while re-imagining sustainable living environments.”


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