• The 2021 Lexus Design Award has been won by a portable solar distiller, designed by Henry Glogau.
  • This aims to provide anyone in the world with clean drinking water; its versatile design means that it can function in a variety of environments.
  • The portable distiller works through solar desalination, which relies on evaporation and condensation.
  • Glogau hopes to further refine and improve his design, believing these ideas have potential to be used at a larger scale.

A portable solar distiller which aims to provide anyone in the world with clean drinking water has won this year’s Lexus Design Award.

The project has been designed by Henry Glogau, who explains that the design can be prefabricated or locally sourced and manufactured or a mix of the two.

image of a render of the distiller
A render of the solar distiller
Image: Henry Glogau

“The design is adaptable to local surroundings and available resources,” he adds. The prefabricated model consists of a plastic canopy to hold the water, an internal funnel to collect the liquid and a bamboo support structure.

This can be adjusted to use only canopy and funnel, according to Glogau, meaning that the structure could be suspended between buildings for example. “This hybrid version also acts as a shelter for shade with space underneath to stand or sit,” he says.

image showing an adaptation of the distiller structure
A hybrid version of the distiller
Image: Henry Glogau

The design is also adaptable in terms of materials used. A locally sourced version might use wooden parts, explains Glogau, or a plastic bottle as the funnel.

“The purpose of my design is to encourage others to hack and adapt the system I have created to best suit their needs and environment,” he adds. According to Glogau, the distiller can purify up to 18 litres of undrinkable or polluted water in a 12 hour period.

How the distiller works

image of Henry Glogau with a prototype of the distiller
Henry with a prototype
Image: Henry Glogau

The distillation works through solar desalination, which relies on two processes: evaporation and condensation. This mirrors the hydrological cycle where water is evaporated by the sun, condensed into clouds and precipitated through rain.

In Glogau’s design, the 2.2m diameter canopy is made from two durable plastics which have been sewn together. The upper layer is a transparent UV resistant material which allows solar energy to reach the water while the bottom layer is a heat absorbent plastic which contains the water.

image of fresh water being collected from the distiller
Fresh water being collected from the distiller.
Image: Henry Glogau

After water is collected, energy from the sunlight separates the contaminants and freshwater through evaporation. This leaves behind impurities such as salt brine, heavy metals and pathogens, the designer explains. The vaporised freshwater is then condensed as droplets on the inner surface.

‘Microgrooves’ which are inspired by the structure of leaves channel these droplets towards the centre where they collect in the funnel. This funnel can be accessed by a tap or directly connected to an empty bottle.

Inspired by “extreme climates”

Henry Glogau stood by a labelled diagram of the distiller
A diagram of the distiller.
Image: Henry Glogau

Glogau was inspired by a term abroad in Chile while he was a student at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen, Denmark. Working with social inclusion NGO Techo, Glogau travelled to the community of Mejillones which faces “extreme climates”, the designer says.

“I spent time inside the informal settlement communities,” he adds. “I learnt about some of the significant daily challenges they face, in particular access to freshwater and electricity.”

He says he was particularly interested in finding ways to “produce resources through passive and low-tech designs”. The designer also investigated biomimetic design with the use of local flora and fauna.

image of the distiller being built
the distiller being built.
Image: Henry Glogau

Glogau says that the design process was “challenging” at times. At one point, he “completely reimagined its implementation” and was forced to find new materials and manufacturing techniques.

Under the mentorship provided by Lexus, he says he has produced a “more portable, modular, and simple to construct” design.

water, health, environment

What is the Forum doing to address the global water challenge?

Water security – both sustainable supply and clean quality – is a critical aspect in ensuring healthy communities. Yet, our world’s water resources are being compromised.

Today, 80% of our wastewater flows untreated back into the environment, while 780 million people still do not have access to an improved water source. By 2030, we may face a 40% global gap between water supply and demand.

The World Economic Forum’s Water Possible Platform is supporting innovative ideas to address the global water challenge.

The Forum supports innovative multi-stakeholder partnerships including the 2030 Water Resources Group, which helps close the gap between global water demand and supply by 2030 and has since helped facilitate $1Billion of investments into water.

Other emerging partnerships include the 50L Home Coalition, which aims to solve the urban water crisis, tackling both water security and climate change; and the Mobilizing Hand Hygiene for All Initiative, formed in response to close the 40% gap of the global population not having access to handwashing services during COVID-19.

Want to join our mission to address the global water challenge? Read more in our impact story.

Following the project’s win, Glogau says he will continue to refine the design to “optimise the performance and user centricity”.

He adds: “I am passionate about designing for a self-sustaining future and believe that these initial ideas have an even larger potential to be discovered at a great scale.”