According to legend, on New Year’s Eve of 1899, the head of the US Patent Office proudly proclaimed that everything that could be invented had now been invented. It turns out, he missed a few innovations, things like the airplane, television, and the entire digital age. Another thing he missed was the Solar Desalination Skylight, a device that not only provides soft indirect lighting to interior spaces, it also desalinates seawater and uses the resulting salt brine to make batteries that keep the light functioning at night.
3XN is a world renowned architectural firm based in Copenhagen, Denmark. One of its many bright young architects is Henry Glogau, who hails from New Zealand. He holds a masters degree from the Royal Danish Academy and specializes in architecture for extreme environments. His passion is exploring present and future global challenges in expeditions to diverse locations.
Solar & Politics
The country of Chile is a free marketer’s dream where all essential services are privatized. For more about this topic, please pick up a copy of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, which explains in exquisite detail the fundamentals of what she calls “disaster capitalism.” With no public water supply, many Chilean communities pay exorbitant prices for fresh water. One of them is Mejillones, a seaside village far to the north of the capitol city of Santiago.
Here, Glogau brought his latest invention, a solar skylight that produces up to 400 ml of potable water from seawater every day. That may seem like a drop in the bucket — no pun intended — and it is. The human body requires around 2 liters of water a day, so one solar desalinator is just a start for people in this water starved community, but it is still a miracle for those who live there. The judges at the Lexus Design Awards were so impressed with the device, they gave it their top award last year. Check out this very cool video to learn more about how the Solar Desalination Skylight was designed and how it works.
According to DesignBoom:
“In addition to the fundamental design principle of circularity, it was also important for the skylight to be familiar and approachable rather than some high-tech gadget. Glogau embraced a holistic approach that works with the natural environment rather than against it.
“The ceiling-mounted lamp is a hybrid of salt batteries and solar power. During the day, the LED light strip is charged by a small solar panel. It is also powered by the salt brine waste from the evaporation process to create a series of salt batteries. These 12 seawater batteries provide a source of energy to power the skylight at night through a chemical reaction when placed in tubes holding copper and zinc.
“The design is articulated by a domed form with a pattern of water channels on the surface. To get the final shape, the designer created a mold from CNC milling and vacuum formed over it. Sea water is hand pumped into the light via a small tube and clean drinking water is pumped out from the bottom.”
Glogau explains the project began with a dialogue with the local community about resource scarcity. Then the design team organized workshops with local residents to create low-tech versions of the product using readily available materials such as plastic bottles, cans, knives, and tape.
The Solar Desalinization Skylight is about more than just interior lighting during the day or making drinking water from the ocean. It also makes activities many of us take for granted possible at night in a community where access to reliable electrical power is problematic. It’s a small but important step by a team of very forward thinking individuals. Below is a composite graphic showing the steps the team went through from the initial concept to the final product.