Today, almost a billion people lack access to an “improved” water source, in other words available in the home, in a protected well or in a public reservoir. Instead, they have to wait for water trucks or for vendors on foot, or to drink from unprotected wells that rarely have potable water. Each year, two million people die from illnesses linked to unsanitary water. Every day, two billion people use water sources contaminated by fecal matter. By 2025, more than half of the world’s population will live in regions affected by water stress or water scarcity.
These alarming numbers from the World Health Organization were released at COP24, the international climate summit in Katowice. Marc Vergnet may have had them in mind as he designed his saltwater treatment device, a unique system that transforms seawater into freshwater using solar energy. It’s part of the fight against the planetary shortage of drinkable water.
His name may not ring any bells, but Marc Vergnet is a celebrity in the world of renewable energies. A pioneer of sustainable development, the indefatigable inventor has 18 patents to his name – for water pumps, retractable anti-cyclonic wind turbines, solar water heaters, and other revolutionary machines aiming to help quash the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries.
Officially retired, the 75-year-old former company head remains a hyperactive entrepreneur. Once “Mr. Renewable” at the French Environment & Energy Management Agency, he’s now determined to supply the entire world with water. Recently, in 2015, he launched Mascara, a startup with the goal of desalinating seawater using solar energy. But his ecological roots run back more than 40 years, actively throwing himself into research and development projects related to water scarcity, solar and wind energy, and more globally, renewable energies that provide us with natural elements.
The Vergnet water pump
The agricultural engineer’s first successes were with water in Africa. In the early 1970s, the Sahel countries – Senegal, Mauritania, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Niger and Chad – experienced a serious food crisis, further aggravated by a long drought caused by an increasingly arid climate. In Upper Volta, for example, where water is scare, wells that once quenched the villages’ thirst from heavy rains were now dried up or rapidly running out. By forcing the villagers to drink non-potable water, the shortage brought waterborne illnesses, from cholera and typhoid to salmonellosis and dysentery.
Just then, a young graduate of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research and the National School of Rural Engineering, Water Resources and Forestry named Marc Vergnet arrived in Ouagadougou, the capital of the Republic of Upper Volta. It was 1969, and without knowing it, Vergnet had the solution to the crisis in his luggage. A 26-year-old agricultural engineer, he’d already filed seven patents as an intern at the National Center of Agricultural Machinery, Rural Engineering, Water and Forestry in the Paris suburbs. “I discovered that I loved creating things, even when they didn’t work,” he remembers today, laughing. In Africa, the Algerian-born, budding inventor was about to put this new passion to work for others.
Since he was a teenager, Vergnet had only one ambition: “to help the rural development of this continent I fell in love with.” On behalf of the French Minister of Agriculture, he managed to secure a job in rural engineering of water and forests in Burkina Faso. “I found myself as deputy director of the Directorate of Hydraulics and Rural Equipment, responsible for managing water, dams and irrigation. And with a ton of money, in a context where things could get done. And they got done,” he says. He was greatly moved by the deadly droughts that struck the Sahel: “Men and women were dying of thirst while there was plenty of water in the ground! I told myself with all the idealism I had then: this is fertile ground; if we had water, we could save Africa. All we needed were techniques to draw it in large quantities without polluting it.”
In front of wells dug in the bush that dried up in less than a year in the drought, the young engineer found his solution. “I had the idea of drilling, which let us produce much more water and wouldn’t dry up,” he explains. But there was a catch. “A drill hole is narrow and required a pump. But you couldn’t use a standard (mechanical) pump in Africa, because maintaining them was too complicated. The residents of isolated villages hadn’t mastered the techniques of water uptake. So I had to invent a pump that anyone could use in a village, particularly that the women could maintain, because it was the women who were responsible for the water.”
In 1973, “so as not to offend scientists at the time, who didn’t believe in drilling holes as a solution,” the engineer secretly created the “Vergnet pump,” a manual, hydraulic transmission pump that was easy to use and operated via a foot pedal. With no pistons or rods, 10 times lighter than mechanical equipment, “it was inspired by the human heart,” according to its inventor. “It was kind of like a heart submerged at the bottom of a drill hole, able to find deeper water (130 meters down), then to pulse it upward.” A single push of the pedal would make a half-liter of water flow.
Knowing that the countries of the Sahel would be more interested in “using their own tools than using technologies sold by developed countries,” Vergnet trained the local population so that it could manufacture, maintain and commercialize the material for the innovative pump, using small parts companies. “The pump was a real success. Every time we visited another African country, I established a company with local friends in order to manage spare parts, the whole after-sale system,” Vergnet says.
In all, he created a network of 350 spare parts stores (in Mali, Tanzania and Rwanda). 3,000 mechanics, trained and quipped, cross the villages on bikes and still maintain some 110,000 hydropumps supplying potable water to hundreds of thousands of people in remote villages of the African brush, but also in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
For the young engineer, “this was a fabulous adventure, because there was the technology, but more so because I really discovered sustainable development, and I was able to prove that it was possible to supply even the most remote populations with water, all while allowing them to use their own spare parts economically.” In addition, he says, the pump made it possible to eliminate 98% of waterborne illnesses where it was used.
Marc Vergnet also invented a low-temperature solar thermodynamic engine, making it possible to reheat water in a barrel with an expansion motor. “The water heater spread quickly in Africa in an era when no one believed in solar,” he says. “That’s how the two great axes of my life were formed: water and solar.”
In 1973, the first oil shortage sunk the French economy, and the idea of alternatives to fossil fuels began to bloom – via nuclear, but also to a lesser extent solar. In this context, the agronomic engineer returned to France. “At the time, all the big companies – Total, CGE, Alstom, Renault – realized that something was happening with solar. They were interested in my thermodynamic engine, and they bought it,” he says. After several years of promoting and selling his solar water heaters and his hydropumps at the French Environment & Energy Management Agency, where he was in charge of the “renewable energies” program, he founded an eponymous company in 1989: Vergnet. It was a small business, created in a Parisian concierge’s quarters with four employees, specializing in water pumping, but also solar… and then wind.
At the time, wind energy barely existed in France. It was only two years prior that La Compagnie du Vent (The Wind Company) installed the first (and only) French wind turbine at Port-la-Nouvelle in southern France. Unlike countries like Denmark and Norway that were developing wind turbines at mass scale, France had firmly embarked on the nuclear path. It wouldn’t be until 1996, a year before the Kyoto Protocol was created to fight greenhouse gas emissions, that the French government launched the “Eole” project to develop wind as a renewable energy resource, installing giant, flower-like turbines across the country by 2005.
At the same time, thousands of kilometers from the capital, wind energy is still almost impossible from a technical standpoint, in costal zones plagued by tornados and tropical storms. In these regions, mostly located in Africa and in the Caribbean, it’s hard to install massive wind turbines where even electricity from fossil fuel energy is too expensive. Faced with this problem, Marc Vergnet came up with yet another revolutionary solution.
In 1993, against all expectations, he launched a new venture — this time in wind. But he quickly pushed aside the idea of working in metropolitan France, opting again to go south, to Africa. “At the time, solar was developing very slowly in France, and out of what did exist in wind energy production, the big companies like EDF were really hesitant, so I wanted to look somewhere else.” Not content with his water pumps and solar engines all across Africa, the agricultural engineer decided to design technology that could produce energy in areas that were even more isolated, remote and inaccessible, but where the wind blew strong.
“In all trade-wind regions, there are tornados. So I had the idea to design wind turbines whose masts are supported by guy lines and which fall back to earth when tornados are approaching. You can fold them up in one or two hours depending on their size, and you strap them to the ground during extreme winds. That let us produce electricity at very low expense.” Between 1993 and 2007, his small- and medium-scale tilting anti-cyclonic wind turbines(from 20 to 1 MW), sprang up all around the world – in France’s overseas departments (Guadeloupe, Reunion, New Caledonia), but also in Vanuatu, Samoa, Cuba, Chili, Ethiopia and Mauritania. In all, more than 600 turbines were spinning around the world.
In 2007, Vergnet the company went public and took on an industrial dimension. While the majority of wind turbines in France were built by foreign entities (the German Nordex, the Danish Bonus and the Spanish Gamesa comprise two-thirds of the current market in France), Vergnet and Jeumont Electric are the only French businesses to produce them, representing (respectively) 6 and 3 percent of the market. But in France’s overseas departments and in tornado risk zones, the small- and medium-scale Vergnet machines dominate over the competing Danish Vestas and Neg-Micon versions.
Two French laws, however, have stifled Marc Vergnet’s wind turbines. The Grenelle 2 law makes it illegal to install wind farms within 500 meters of residences, in a measure to protect the environment. At the same time, the Littoral law forces companies to build their wind turbines “in the urban continuity” – in other words, next to residences. “These two laws prevented wind development, and in the space of three months, all our activity in that field stopped,” the inventor says. Whether due to these two laws or to a drop in demand, Vergnet was near bankruptcy in 2008, and five years later the entrepreneur decided to give it up, claiming that “France missed the boat on renewable energy.”
Back on its feet thanks to a restructuring by a financial backer, Vergnet the company is now counting on installing more than 900 wind turbines around the world. Even against giants like Siemens, Enercon and Nordex, the company is still a powerful underdog. Although it only claims 0.5 percent of the global market, Vergnet in 2018 is still the only supplier of anti-cyclonic turbines.
At 72 years old, Marc Vergnet is still active in Vergnet Hydro, a company founded in 2004 to separate his “water” interests from the “energy” interests of his former business. But even though he “deserves a nice retirement,” he still has the drive to help poor populations around the world, particularly with regards to water and energy access. And it so happened that in 2013, a rapidly warming climate in the previous decade began to seriously threaten a good percentage of humanity. According to OEDC predictions, around 3.9 billion people could face water scarcity by 2040, or more than half the living human beings on earth. By 2080, three times more people will suffer from “severe water shortages.”
At the same time, the irony is that water covers 71 percent of the surface of the earth, but 97.5 percent of that is saltwater. That’s why countries like Algeria, Libya, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates are beginning to invest ($126 billion in 2009) in desalination machines to draw the salt out of seawater. That’s also why Marc Vergnet quickly got himself back on track, forgot his previous failure, and designed an innovative seawater desalination system that relies on the very energy he used in his Africa days: the sun.
“I’d had this dream for 15 years: harness the sun to desalinate seawater and produce freshwater in order to help solve the global water shortage,” he remembers. The retired engineer founded Mascara, with 15 employees and his associate Maxime Haudebourg, an ecologist and former electrical engineering and automation professor. Together, they developed a technology known as “Osmosun,” based on the innovative process of reverse osmosis. “Osmotic pressure is a natural mechanism that pushes a light liquid (freshwater) toward a more concentrated liquid (saltwater). With reverse osmosis, you put a pressure that is greater than osmotic pressure on saltwater, pushing it across a membrane that only freshwater can breach,” the inventor says.
“In 20 years, no one had managed to make osmosis units work with the sun. At the time, standard osmosis units worked very well, but with generators, without variable power. With our system, a membrane instantly determines all the operating parameters (flow, pressure) without human intervention, which allows it to vary them according to solar power. In the morning, the sun rises and the installation starts working, and in the evening it sets and the machine stops,” the tireless inventor says.
So why set out on this solar desalination project? “Before, I was working with water wherever it was available underground, wherever there was energy (wind, solar). But the problem is that accessible and renewable water is costly, and there’s never enough. Humanity is going to need water, and climate change is going to make this need more extreme. So unlike what I was doing before in Africa with my pumps, instead of searching for water, I’m creating it with renewable energy by taking it from the oceans and seas.”
Presently, Osmosun desalination units produce between 40 and 300 m3(1 m3equivalent to 1,000 liters) of freshwater each day without batteries. In comparison, in France, the average consumption of water is about 40 m3per year per person, according to the French National Center for Scientific Research. The global desalination market is now worth $10 billion annually, and this number could add another zero by 2030.In Persian Gulf countries, the majority of potable water already comes from reverse osmosis. In Saudi Arabia, for example, 70 percent of its water comes from the sea. “But the units, as big as factories, all use diesel, which emits CO2, and are almost necessarily built on coasts. Osmosun, on the other hand, is a small machine that can be erected in 10 days in locations far from the coast, and it requires nothing more than the sun to function. As a result, once the machine is purchased, production costs for freshwater are about three times less than with classic methods,” Marc Vergnet claims.
Osmosun units are now spreading in Abu Dhabi, as part of the Masdar City project, an “ecologically sustainable city” currently under construction. Calls to produce freshwater from saltwater were made all over the world. Suez, Veolia, Abengoa and Trevi Systems each developed a pilot factory. “But we quickly left them behind with our solar technology. At the end of a year and a half, we had the best results (40 m3of freshwater per day, completely autonomously), which allowed us to forge a close partnership with the company Masdar, which was working on the project of the same name, for the commercialization of our systems,” the entrepreneur says.
Osmosun installed other plants in Bora Bora, in Mauritius and in South Africa. Countries like Cape Verde and Morocco were also interested, as well as Suez and Veolia. But for Marc Vergnet, there was no way he was going to bow to the sirens of money. “We’re not selling Mascara. Our goal isn’t profit, it’s to provide water to people who don’t have it.”
At a time when the World Water Council estimates that more than a billion people lack access to potable water, “this technology is bringing hope,” Marc Vergnet insists. For him, the Osmosun units should eventually prevent massive climate migrations. “There are islands and countries where people will soon have to leave because they won’t have any water, but if you give them the means to desalinate seawater, they’ll be able to stay.” The militant entrepreneur notes that water will soon become humanity’s “number one problem.” “In Tunisia, where we’ve already tested our machines, children born today will soon be drinking desalinated water, because there’s no freshwater. In Cape Verde, where I just came from, 99% of their water comes from the Atlantic Ocean. And if you look at the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and even the United States in Colorado, they’re already out of water!” he says.
By preventing drinking water shortages (in particular in African countries), solar-powered seawater desalination could thus prevent armed conflicts. “Wars are and will be increasingly linked to access to existing natural resources. Right now the Israelis are creating huge desalination units, but with oil, because otherwise they wouldn’t have water. And for the countries that aren’t wealthy enough to supply their own oil, the only hope is desalination with solar.”
Regreening the desert
Climate disruption is also occurring in the form of desertification, especially in Africa, as drought and rising temperatures spread across the region. According to the work of COP24, the continent, two-thirds of which consists of desert and arid zones, is threatened with famine – 240 million Africans are now suffering from food insecurity. If nothing changes, that number could reach 600 million people by 2050. The Joint Research Center, the European Union’s scientific body, claims that the combined effect of soil depletion and climate change could reduce agricultural harvests by 50 percent in 2050 in India, China and sub-Saharan Africa.
That’s why, in addition to seawater desalination, Marc Vergnet is working on another related project. Determined to “regreen the desert,” or at least to stop its encroach, he’s been trying since 2017 to establish “water and life hubs” in arid regions. “Someday I would like to show that water is everywhere, even in desert areas and where it’s salty. That’s why we at Mascara created a very simple machine that can produce water at very low prices in order to one day allow for irrigation in the desert using solar desalination,” the inventor says. Eventually, he hopes to make several one- to two-hectare “development islands,” similar to oases, in the middle of the desert. They could be used to develop agriculture. “We’ve already tested an initial pilot desalination unit in Cape Verde, and soon in Senegal,” he says.
Vergnet’s most recent project linked to the desert uses polymers similar to those found in diapers (for their ability to absorb and store water) in hot and arid areas. Placed at the base of trees, they help their roots take in water. “It’s a still a prototype system, but it works, and we should be testing it soon in Abu Dhabi.”
Clearly, the engineer that has dedicated his life to sustainable development is nowhere near real retirement. Right now he is chairing Mascara voluntarily. “I’m unpaid, but I’ve invested myself here for the last five years because I believe in this project. I think about retirement sometimes, but I forget it just as quickly, replaced by a will to use my power to change things,” he says, smiling. “And when retirement does come, I have confidence in the youth of today to take up the torch. The average age at the company is 32 years… and all of them are like me!”