Students' 'Solar Still' Wins Law School Entrepreneurship Contest, Aims to Provide Clean Drinking Water to Developing Countries

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The winning team of the 2011 UVA Law Entrepreneurial Concept Competition was (from left) Joshua Tully, Nathan Phalen and Justin Kanter.

November 10, 2011

Three first-year University of Virginia School of Law students designed a device that they believe has the potential to provide clean drinking water to millions of families in developing countries.

The team's device, called a "partially evacuated solar still," was the winning entry in the 2011 UVA Law Entrepreneurial Concept Competition.

"Our device is a low maintenance solution for areas that don't have access to clean drinking water, if their water is polluted, or if they have access to ocean water," Nathan Phalen, one of the team members, said. "It would actually make the water potable."

The team's concept will represent the Law School on Nov. 18 at the UVA Entrepreneurship Cup, a cross-university competition that aims to encourage the development of for-profit and not-for-profit ventures by members of the UVA community. The winning entry will be awarded a $20,000 prize, with $10,000 going to the second-place entry and $5,000 going to two runners-up.

(Update: The Law School team was named an honorable mention in the university-wide competition and took home a $5,000 prize.)

In 2010, the winning team of the UVA Entrepreneurship Cup designed a low-cost, handheld retina camera that enables primary care physicians to screen for diabetes-related eye disease. The 2009 winning team designed a self-inflating safety belt aimed at the leisure boating market.

A panel of Law School alumni entrepreneurs chose the solar still last week as the best of 12 entries submitted by teams of about 30 law students. The team was awarded a $2,000 prize, while $1,000 went to the second-place team and $500 to the third-place entry. The panel of judges included Doug Caton '72, founder and chairman of Management Services Corp.; Mitch Willey '76, founder and president of Time & Place Homes; and David Kalergis '81, co-founder of Diffusion Pharmaceuticals LLC.

The team believes its device could not only deliver clean drinking water, but also serve as a viable business model. The students said their target market will be nongovernmental organizations and governments in the developing world.

"Annual investments in water supply in sub-Saharan Africa, are about $2.6 billion a year," said Joshua Tully, one of the team members. "According to a World Bank study, about half of that comes from foreign aid and half comes from governments in Africa. [That figure represents] just investments on new projects, it doesn't include maintenance of existing projects."

The Law School's chapter of the Virginia Entrepreneurial Society sponsored the Entrepreneurial Concept Competition. The group's president, third-year law student Chris Wimbush, said the team's design was impressive.

"I'm really proud of the concept Team Solar Still put together for this year's competition," he said. "Their work helps show that making the world a better place and making money are not mutually exclusive."

The device will look a bit like a cooler found on the sidelines of football games. To use it, an person would pour brackish or salt water into the device, close the lid and use a pump to evacuate about 80 percent of the air, which brings down the air pressure inside the device to around 3 psi and lowers the boiling point of water to 140 degrees Fahrenheit from the normal 212 degrees.

"So you get a lot of evaporation during a sunny day, especially in places like Sudan where the temperature gets up to 110 degrees during the dry season," Tully said. "At night time, the temperature cools down into the 70s and condensation happens inside the still, just like it does on your windows in your house in the morning when it's warm inside the house and cold outside."

The condensation that forms is pure water.

"The same thing happens [with our device]. We capture all that condensation in a separate reservoir, where people can go the next morning — it's a 24-hour cycle — and, just like you would pour out water from a cooler, you get fresh water out of our device."

The team's initial expectations, extrapolating from research on partial-evacuation and the output of regular stills, are that one of their stills could produce three liters of clean water daily. They hope to work with UVA's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to make further design improvements and build and test prototypes.

The idea for the device came about when Phalen had a conversation about the global water crisis with a friend who was a graduate student in engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

"We were talking about the water crisis in general and I asked him about desalinization as a solution," he said. "You look at our planet, 70 percent of it is water and less than 1 percent of that water is fit for human consumption. It's kind of staggering figures. His answer is that desalination isn't really feasible. Desalinization plants exist, but a lot of them are operating at a loss. It doesn't make economic sense because they're too expensive and require too much energy."

So Phalen began thinking about cheaper and more efficient solutions and settled on the idea of using solar still technology to purify water.

Justin Kanter, the team's third member, said the need for their device will only grow in the years ahead as the population of developing countries continues to grow exponentially.

"Water is going to be the conflict resource of the 21st century," he said. " This is going to be something that is a solution looking forward toward that issue."


Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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