Abu Dhabi entrepreneur tackles world’s devastating water crisis

William Janssen is creating a portable device that uses solar power to purify seawater.

William Janssen has developed a prototype which heats sea water, evaporates it, condenses it, the churns it out as safe, distilled, drinkable water. Lee Hoagland / The National
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When the entrepreneur William Janssen was building the prototype of his invention in an Abu Dhabi villa, he had two important things on his mind.

One was whether his concept of harnessing solar power to create pure H2O would succeed in alleviating the world’s potentially devastating water crisis.

The other was what his wife’s reaction would be, given that splinters of broken glass were flying across the living room floor.

Mr Janssen is the chief executive of Desolenator, a UK-registered company behind a portable device that uses solar power to purify seawater. The free-standing unit requires no power other than the sun, has no moving parts or filters and can produce up to 15 litres a day.

Although his company is based abroad, the prototype was invented by Mr Janssen in Abu Dhabi, where the 47-year-old Dutchman is resident.

Mr Janssen’s invention has a vast target market in mind: according to the United Nations, around 1.2 billion people – almost a fifth of the world’s population – live in areas of water scarcity, with 500 million more approaching this situation. Mr Janssen says his long-term focus is to provide water to the 1 billion people he says live near an undrinkable source, such as seawater or polluted water.

While the solar technology used is clean and green, building the prototype was an altogether messier process. At one point, one of Mr Janssen’s associates had to take a chisel to the “proof-of-principle” model.

“It was in the middle of my living room and glass was spraying everywhere … If my wife would have known, she would have killed me,” Mr Janssen says.

With the broken glass cleared up, the finished solar-powered water purifier then worked perfectly when tested in Mr Janssen’s garden in Abu Dhabi. Inspiration for it came when he was in Thailand, where he noticed rooftop-mounted boxes used by locals to heat water for showers.

He came up with the idea of adding a solar panel, which could be used to actually boil water for desalination. That in itself is nothing new. But the “eureka moment” came when Mr Janssen realised he could use “heat exchange” to make the device more efficient. So as the hot water vapour is condensing, it is channelled within the unit to help warm up the next batch of cold water.

Mr Janssen – who trained as a mechanical engineer – successfully applied for a patent in 2012, and the next year formed his company, which has offices in London and the Netherlands, and conducts research in India.

Having originally managed the project in his spare time, Mr Janssen this month quit his day job at an Abu Dhabi contracting company, in what he calls a “leap of faith”.

Despite his solar water purifier not yet being in mass production, things are progressing. Desolenator recently won second prize at the CleanLaunchpad awards, part of an EU-funded climate initiative. The prize includes a grant and admission to an accelerator programme at Imperial College London.

Andrew Burford, the entrepreneurship lead at Climate-KIC UK, says Desolenator has uses both today and in a future scenario of increasing water shortages.

“We are not doing a good job reducing carbon; this is leading to a warmer world and this means that many more people will need water,” Mr Burford says. “Desolenator is a climate adaptation technology that is part of “plan B” in the event we have to live in a world with less water. There are also millions of people who need it today.”

There is a lot of work to do before Mr Janssen’s vision – which until now has been self-financed – enters production. He has recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on the Indiegogo platform, which at the time of writing had raised $50,000 of its $150,000 target. The next step is to produce about 1,000 units for testing in a village in Tamil Nadu, India. Such a trial is essential if the company is to persuade governments or NGOs to adopt the technology.

Such support is necessary, because the water-purifying units would cost about Dh1,430 each if mass produced – prohibitively expensive for most of the target users to buy outright.

“We have plenty of ideas as to how to get the unit to those people. It will probably have to go through NGOs or microfinance, or through government,” says Mr Janssen. He doesn’t pretend that being an entrepreneur is easy, having faced many challenges along the way.

“They call it the ‘valley of death’,” he says. “My take on that is that there are quite a few valleys, and that it is very quiet in those valleys; you knock on many doors but there is very little response. But that is just part of the process – you just have to go through that. That is part and parcel of being an entrepreneur.”

As he continues to work to get his prototype into production, Mr Janssen sees just one more “valley of death” ahead. “I think there is one more coming,” he says. “And that is getting the unit in the field.”


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