A team of University of Toronto engineering students has helped a clean-tech start-up develop a modular device for harvesting water from fog.
‘I was excited to see a capstone project where the client was an organisation with humanitarian aims,’ said Eva Liu, a mechanical engineering student at U of T. ‘It was a unique opportunity to apply what we’ve learned over the last few years to a project with global and environmental reach.’
Liu and her teammates – Alyson Wong, Valerie Ajayi and Kelly Chu – have spent the past year working on a challenge brought forward by Permalution, which develops technology for harvesting water from fog. Since 2018, Permalution has been working with the state of Nayarit in Mexico to use fog harvesting to meet the region’s unique challenges.
‘Nayarit is home to a number of protected natural areas that contain many endangered species,’ said Tatiana Estevez, CEO of Permalution. ‘Forest fires are a big problem there. While the area is exposed to fog for 80 per cent of the year, it almost never rains. Fog harvesting can help conservationists get water to fight forest fires, but it would also be a useful source of water for the local population.’
Permalution’s existing fog harvester is built around a polypropylene mesh that collects condensation and directs it toward an irrigation point. However, the design often requires trained personnel to set it up, something that can be a challenge in Nayarit. ‘The areas where we want to deploy this device are very mountainous and often can only be reached on foot,’ Estevez said. ‘It’s difficult and costly to send our own staff there and the challenge got worse due to the travel restrictions being imposed as a result of COVID-19. We wanted to make it easier for people already on the ground to set up these devices without outside help.’
According to Ajayi, the team’s task was essentially to ‘IKEA-fy’ the design of the fog harvester. ‘Like IKEA products, we wanted a design that would be durable, easy to ship, easy to assemble and affordable,’ she said. ‘We also wanted it to be expandable as needed.’
‘The approach we decided on was to make the new design modular,’ said Wong. ‘That means that there are standard units that can be connected to one another in any combination, so that the size of the fog catcher can be whatever size the client would like.’
Over the course of two semesters, the team tried out numerous designs, with their final iteration presented in the showcase at the end of the course. ‘The main lesson that will stick with me is the importance of prototyping,’ said Chu. ‘We mapped out the conceptual idea of the module for many weeks, but it wasn’t until we started actually building it that we really gained a sense of how feasible our design would be.’
The team’s prototype is now with Permalution in Sherbrooke, Quebec, where it’s undergoing a mechanical review. Estevez said that the next step will be to design for manufacturing.
‘Partnering with U of T helped us achieve a significant milestone in our product-development roadmap,’ she said. ‘This project has been a great starting point toward our goal of being able to deploy more of our fog-collecting solutions worldwide.’