UNC Charlotte grads’ wave-based water cleaner makes a splash in Paris

SAROS (Swell Actuated Reverse Osmosis System) co-founder/engineer Chris Matthews, left, and concept creator/project supporter Fred Wagner III stand with a prototype, which desalinates ocean water with wave energy.
SAROS (Swell Actuated Reverse Osmosis System) co-founder/engineer Chris Matthews, left, and concept creator/project supporter Fred Wagner III stand with a prototype, which desalinates ocean water with wave energy.

Turns out the ocean can produce drinkable water on its own – if you throw a pendulum, some filters and squirt-gun pumps onto the waves, as Chris Matthews and Justin Sonnett did for their senior engineering project at UNC Charlotte.

Now the two 2014 graduates are working full time to turn their project into a business. They’re racing with companies from Boston to Australia to bring a wave-based desalinator to the market.

The idea of removing salt from sea water to make it drinkable has fascinated humans since ancient times. In recent decades, technological advances driven by the world’s increasingly urgent clean water shortage have made desalination more affordable – but it depends heavily on electricity and fossil fuels.

Enter Matthews and Sonnett: Their desalinator gets energy from the ocean itself, through waves.

Last month they were in Paris with Laura Smailes, director of operations, competing for 100,000 euros at the Hello Tomorrow Conference, a science and technology summit. Among 3,600 entries from around the world, theirs was one of just 30 projects selected to compete. While they didn’t win the prize, they came away pleased with connections and exposure.

“It was cool to see that we were still able to hold our own. ... In a big pond,” Sonnett said. “It was a very good validation.”

They hope to bring the project to market in 2017 under the name SAROS, for Swell Actuated Reverse Osmosis System. The demand is urgent: 40 of 50 states expect clean water shortages in the next decade, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Worldwide, about 780 million people lack access to clean water, the United Nations says. It’s the energy intensive character of desalination that makes it a luxury for less developed countries, experts say.

For Matthews, SAROS is a way to give meaning to his engineering degree.

“I really enjoy having to come up with something that didn’t exist, and to be able to build something that could possibly make a difference in someone’s life, as opposed to trying to save Toyota 3 cents in every car that they make on the assembly line,” Matthews said.

From lab to market

Removing salt from sea water is a lot like any other filtering process: You run ocean water through a membrane that filters out particles like salt and bacteria. But you need pressure to keep the filtered water molecules from going back to the salty solute. And it takes energy to pressurize water.

Matthews and Sonnett expect their first commercial product to produce 600-800 gallons of clean water per day. The product could be leased or sold at $28,000, Matthews said. But their top priority now is redesigning and testing their prototype.

“This is the opportunity to give something to the world that's going to make a difference,” Sonnett said. “I just want to see this thing be used, I don’t care if it makes a lot of money or what not.”

That’s why Smailes joined the two engineers a year ago, after a career in media and sales. She wanted to make a difference. “I took a chance in the beginning, but I no longer think it’s a ‘chance.’ ... (With) the way I’ve seen them grow,” she said of Matthews and Sonnett.

SAROS’s potential customers include governments, organizations and individuals on islands or in coastal areas.

Before starting the manufacturing process, the inventors intend to test SAROS to learn how often it requires maintenance, how to transfer clean water back to shore and how to bundle multiple units for larger capacity, among other factors.

Any minor modification of the prototype can cost $4,000, said Fred Wagner, partner at Enventys, a Charlotte-based innovative-product development company. He brought the initial idea of wave-based desalination to the two UNCC students in 2013 and personally invested $120,000 in the project.

Matthews and Sonnett are raising $650,000 to carry the project forward. That’s not a huge sum for a technology startup, said Dan Gotte, partner of the Fuse Financial Partners LLC, a Charlotte finance consulting firm focused on small businesses. He is an adviser for the project through CLT Joules, a local energy startup incubator.

SAROS has an advantage in attracting funds because it meets the “triple bottom-lines” of people, planet and profits, Gotte said, but the two founders have to first settle on a business model.

“Investors like to invest in businesses, not research,” he said.

An uphill battle

The water industry is conservative even compared to other utilities, said Rick Stover, who serves on the board of the International Desalination Association, an industry group. That leads to “terribly underfunded” innovation projects, he said.

Because most water pipes and reservoirs are publicly owned, the price of water is determined more by politics than by the cost to produce clean water and treat wastewater, Stover said. That offers little incentive for dramatic improvement in water production efficiency – or for investors to fund innovative startups.

“They’ve got an uphill battle,” he said of Matthews and Sonnett. But “they seem to be off to a good start. I definitely wish them luck.”

At the same time, Resolute Marine Energy, a Boston-based wave energy technology developer, also aims to launch a commercial product in two years. CEO Bill Staby said his company has been in the business for eight years with the same focus as SAROS, but a different technical approach.

From students to entrepreneurs presenting in front of 2,700 business owners, investors and journalists in Paris, the recent Charlotte graduates say they have learned from wearing multiple hats.

“There is always something else you didn’t know ... every single day. It can be exhausting ... soul-crushing at times,” Matthews said. “But at the end of it you look back and you realize how far you’ve come.”

Cao: 704-358-5384

How SAROS takes salt from sea water

SAROS, designed by two UNC Charlotte graduates, takes salt from sea water through energy from the ocean’s waves. The device is essentially a pendulum on two pontoons that enable the system to float on the ocean.

As waves rock the system, a tank filled with 1,200 pounds of seawater at the bottom of the pendulum swings back and forth, driving the rod to hit the two hydraulic cylinders, one on each side of the fixing point – just like a person operating a bike pump, only horizontally.

When one pump contracts, the other expands, and the two pumps together pressurize sea water to 800 pounds per square inch, 20 times more pressure than a normally inflated car tire.

The pressurized salty water then goes through membranes that filter out large particles like salt and bacteria and becomes unsalted and drinkable water. Athena Cao