A Clean Water Invention Primes the Pump for Activism
Asha Suppiah's solar-powered desalination invention earned her one of Canada's Top 20 under Twenty Awards.
By Mitchell Zimmer
For third-year genetics student Asha Suppiah, having time off usually means she’s to be found playing clarinet, piano or violin, practicing traditional classical Indian dance or working on experiments. “Since I was little I’ve been like this,” she says. This past summer she was busier than usual since she won one of Canada’s Top 20 Under Twenty awards. “This summer I had the leadership summit with the Top 20 Under Twenty, I was studying for MCATs this summer, I did some courses. This summer I spent a lot of it doing that, the summer before I did research work so I decided to take this summer and do some studying.”
Since the she was in Grade six, that attitude and her curiosity supplied the drive to win the Pfizer Canada Award of Excellence twice as well as three gold and two silver awards at the Canada Wide Science Fair, the AECL Award of Excellence, the Natural Resources Canada Award and the Ontario Power Generation Award.
The idea that caught the attention of the Top 20 Under Twenty Award program was originally inspired by a family trip to visit relatives in India when she was twelve. She was astonished to see the water shortages occurring even in the bigger cities there. That is when she decided to try and do something about this problem. “Every thirty seconds there is a person dying of water borne diseases…at any one time, half of the hospital beds in the world are filled with people dying from water borne diseases. It is such a big issue.”
After some research Suppiah found that there were two main problems with existing solar desalination systems. “One of them was that they have a high cost and secondly the efficiency was low.” She then thought that this problem would be a great idea for science fairs. “I worked on it from about grade six until about grade nine and I actually developed a novel system.” Suppiah adds, “I’m actually doubling the efficiency of solar desalinators. What I have is a rotating corrugated cylinder that basically spreads the water and wicks it. So the thing about it is that it increases the surface area and surface tension which increases the water that’s evaporated. This cylinder is actually rotating using photovoltaic cells. The great thing about it is that you don’t have this huge solar stove so you’re reducing the cost by reducing the area you need.” The prototype she constructed turned out to be an elegant solution. Suppiah says, “It’s made from very simple materials, it was made in my house, in my basement and I demonstrated it using an infra-red heat lamp to show that water evaporated.” The real test was to see if the device functioned outside, and she gave it a test run in her backyard. “It worked, and to think if you made a large scale system and put it in these countries the impact that it could make is just enormous,” says Suppiah. “Right now I’m looking for help, sponsors and things like that, in order to help me set it up. I applied for a patent a while ago and I’m still waiting … it’s years and years of waiting for these patents. When that’s done, I want to set up a company that’s going to build them and set them up in these countries, but right now I’m just looking for the different avenues of how to do that.”
Suppiah’s interest in water accessibility has swelled beyond invention and flowed into activism. For the past two years she has been involved in raising the awareness of water borne diseases. “I started a club last year called Water Can at Western,” she says. “Environmentally friendly ways of producing fresh water is important. We need to do a lot of fundraising for research for working on this as well as educating people and helping these countries. We’re part of a national organization, they dig wells and they build sanitation systems, sanitation education and they provide fresh water.”
At first glance, Suppiah is undertaking a huge task and an exhausting schedule, but she doesn’t see it that way. “My time off is doing things I love. Even doing the research work, I love it, so to me it’s not necessarily work it’s more something that I enjoy. The majority of my time is spent studying and doing club stuff. I’m very busy but I enjoy what I do, so when you’re enjoying it you don’t really miss out on the time.”