Researchers at IIT-Madras have developed a hybrid solar-powered desalination plant that can serve areas suffering from severe drinking water shortage but have sea or brackish ground water.

A solar photovoltaic panel is dovetailed to a power grid or a backup diesel generator that will power up during periods of weak sunshine and at night and keep producing water through a reverse osmosis plant. When the sun shines, the RO plant is powered entirely by the photovoltaic array.

The breakthrough, IIT researchers claim, lies in the integration of the system and configuring it to this particular application, called the Suryajal Project. The pilot plant produces 2.4 kilolitres a day. Since the system does not use backup batteries, maintenance and operational costs are minimal. Efforts to scale up the pilot plant to provide 1 million litres per day. The project was envisioned to be implemented near Muttukkadu, a few years ago but was shelved due to lack of funds.

Various teams of research scholars, professors and students at IIT-Madras have been working on projects that harness solar power. A team exclusively looks into manufacturing of solar cells, and ways of reducing the cost while another looks at creating small prototypes of solar power enabled systems.

“Tapping solar energy is as important an option as ever since the costs of installing and running solar plants have come down by an order of magnitude in the last decade. It also promises to be a sustainable option, despite being space intensive and high on maintenance,” said V. Jagadeesh Kumar, professor IIT-Madras and Head of Central Electronics Centre (CEC, IIT-M) that had piloted the Suryajal project during the period of its previous head, Dr. Kumaravel. A pilot solar plant designed and developed by the institute is used to heat infant warmers at a hospital in Dharmapuri and provide energy required to store vaccines in refrigerators. “We realise standalone systems are quite useful and stand a competitive chance, especially in remote areas, where transport of diesel to power diesel generators costs a lot,” said Jeevan Das, a research scholar who is working on the Suryajal project.

A major project being supervised by IIT-M Director Professor Bhaskar Ramamurthy and senior professor Ashok Jhunjhunwala looks into lowering the dependency on grid power. A 100-kW grid connected rooftop system is likely to start functioning very soon with a mission to increase it to 1 MW in the near future.

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