Water & Energy Projects

  • 2 researchers testing their device in water

Brackish water desalination for remote communities

Providing reliable, clean water to all is one of the greatest engineering challenges of our time. Potable water scarcity disproportionately effects economically impoverished populations around the world. Currently, many remote communities rely on drawing water from sources that are often contaminated with bacteria, chemicals, or dissolved salts. Hence water typically requires purification or desalination, capabilities which are often lacking in remote communities.

Solar photovoltaic reverse osmosis (PVRO) systems are a stand-alone water desalination system that can help alleviate some of the potable water scarcity challenges in low resource settings. PVRO systems can be developed using modular design approaches from commercially available components and configured to local conditions (e.g. solar insolation, temperature, water characteristics). However, affordability, design expertise and skill-operator intervention are among the factors often lacking in remote and low resource communities.

This research is developing computer-based methods to aid in the design of PVRO systems, which are tailored to the needs of these communities. The methods take local climate and water information to configure a PVRO system, associated pre-treatment, and operational strategies to ensure low-cost and long operating life. Systems developed using this work have been field tested in the Yucatan Peninsula. This work is conducted in conjunction with Fondo para La Paz (Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico) and PVPure (Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico) with funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation (Battle Creek, Michigan, USA) and Canada’s National Science and Engineering Council (NSERC).

Aquaculture aeration for resource constrained settings

Aquaculture is a major economic contributor in many low-income countries. For example, fish farms constitute about 5% of the GDP of Bangladesh. Improving aquaculture pond water quality holds considerable potential to increase fish yields, raise incomes, and improve food security. While aeration has been used to significantly improve water quality and increase yields, the cost of related equipment and the need for electrical power inputs has limited its use in low-income countries (LICs).

We are developing a novel method of aeration, which does not require electricity, has low maintenance requirements and can be cheaply deployed. The idea exploits the aquaculture pond two-layer structure, where the top layer is warm and oxygen rich (as the plant matter in the water generates oxygen during the daytime) while the bottom layer is cold and oxygen depleted. Our system passively mixes these layers to improve the overall oxygen content of the aquaculture pond. Preliminary lab studies have shown that this approach can improve oxygen content by approximately 30%, and we work to determine its efficacy in the field.

This project is a collaboration between the University of Toronto, NISTPASS in Vietnam, and BRAC in Bangladesh. Funding for this project has been provided by Grand Challenges Canada (http://www.grandchallenges.ca/), which is itself funded by the Government of Canada and is dedicated to supporting Bold Ideas with Big Impact in global health.

Team Members

Amy Bilton

Principal Investigator

Ahmed Mahmoud, MASc Student

Very few universities offer students the opportunity to engage in global, sustainable engineering, where they get to tackle difficult challenges facing developing countries with innovative engineering solutions built from the bottom-up... I am proud to be part of this project, and I eagerly look forward to the day it may help communities reliant on aquaculture.


  • Elasaad, H., Bilton, A. M., Kelley, L. C., Duayhe, O. and Dubowsky S. (2015). "Field Evaluation of a Community Scale Solar Powered Water Purification Technology: A Case Study of a Remote Mexican Community Application," Accepted to Desalination.
  • Bilton, A., and Kelley, L. C. (2015). "Design of power systems for reverse osmosis desalination in remote communities," Accepted to Desalination and Water Treatment.
  • Mahmoud, A., and Bilton, A. M. (Oct 2015). "Development of a Passive Solar-Thermal Aeration System for Aquaculture in Resource-Constrained Environments," Accepted to IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, Seattle, WA, USA.
  • Freire-Gormaly, M. and Bilton, A. M. (Aug 2015). "Optimization of Renewable Power Systems for Remote Communities," ASME International Design Engineering Technical Conferences 2015, Boston, MA, USA.
  • Bilton, A.M., and Dubowsky, S. (2014). "A Computer Architecture for the Automatic Design of Modular Systems with Application to Photovoltaic Reverse Osmosis," ASME Journal of Mechanical Design, Vol. 136, No. 10, pp. 101401-1 – 101401-13.
  • Bilton, A. M., and Dubowsky, S. (Aug 2014). "Modular Design of Community-Scale Photovoltaic Reverse Osmosis Systems under Uncertainty," ASME International Design Engineering Technical Conferences 2014, Buffalo, NY, USA.
  • Reed, E. A., Bilton, A. M., and Dubowsky, S. (July 2013). "Controllable Energy Recovery for a Smart PVRO System," Proceedings of the IEEE/ASME International Conference on Advanced Intelligent Mechatronics 2013, Wollongong, Australia.
  • Bilton, A. M., Wiesman, R., Arif, A. F. M., Zubair, S. M., and Dubowsky, S. (Dec 2011). "On the Feasibility of Community-Scale Photovoltaic Powered Reverse Osmosis Systems for Remote Locations." Renewable Energy, Vol. 36, No. 12, pp. 3246-3256.