Please tell us about yourself

Growing up in New Delhi, Devesh Bharadwaj was accustomed to seeing creative innovations that accomplished a lot, using only a little. He calls it jugaad, a Hindi word that translates roughly to mean finding an innovative solution or fix to any problem.

Bharadwaj, now 23 years old, certainly practices jugaad. He’s been an entrepreneur and problem solver since high school — as a teen he sold high school graduation hoodies when no one else in New Delhi was doing it. Bharadwaj moved to Victoria in 2012 to study mechanical engineering at the University of Victoria, and not long after starting his studies, he knew he wanted to engineer an affordable technology that could positively impact the environment.

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Bharadwaj founded Pani Energy, which incorporated in March 2017. Pani Energy develops economically accessible technologies for clean water and clean energy industries — using just the physics of water, salt and a specially designed, semi-permeable membrane.

Less than a year after incorporating, Bharadwaj’s company already has two patents pending. Pani Energy first hopes to commercialize a patent pending adaptive desalination technology, which is estimated to reduce the energy required to desalinate water by between 10 and 30 per cent. Bharadwaj has identified potential customers at desalination plants in Spain, India, Algeria, Israel and Australia, and hopes the technology will be commercialized by the end of 2018. A second patent is pending for Pani Energy’s osmotic energy-storage technology, which economically and efficiently stores renewable energy on a large scale.

While Bharadwaj hopes Pani Energy will become a multinational corporation within the next 10 years, his main goal is to use the economically feasible technologies he’s engineered to sustainably improve how we access essential resources. 

Tell us about your work

Separate salt and water, and they long to come back together. That special chemistry could provide an innovative solution to the dilemma of storing and extracting surplus energy generated by intermittent energy sources such as solar, wind and wave power.

Entrepreneur and mechanical engineer Devesh Bharadwaj is a University of Victoria graduate who founded Pani Energy Inc. in March 2017—while still an undergrad—after he developed a more energy-efficient process to desalinate water for human and industrial consumption. Along the way, Bharadwaj got intrigued by the idea of reversing the desalination process as a means of storing energy, taking advantage of the concentration differences between salt and fresh water.

Pani Energy is a start-up formed in collaboration with UVic through the Coast Capital Savings Innovation Centre, the on-campus incubator that supports entrepreneurs through venture services, campus workspace, funding, connections, and business pitch and plan competitions.

Bharadwaj’s work with reversing the desalination process led to Pani’s new “Osmotic Energy Storage” technology. He will demonstrate that technology in Vancouver this week at the GLOBE Forum, a biennial three-day event to bring together business and governments from all over the world to accelerate the shift to a sustainable, clean economy.

The unpredictability of energy produced by sunshine, wind and waves is a major barrier to countries and regions that don’t have the mountainous terrain suitable for generating hydro-electricity. Intermittent sources provide clean, renewable energy, but can’t be counted on to provide consistent power when it’s needed.

“Take water up a hill and let it fall down, and it spins a turbine that produces electrical energy. The majority of the planet stores its energy this way, through what’s known as pumped hydro,” explains Bharadwaj. “But that requires a certain terrain—hills, mountains—to be able to take advantage of gravity. In the osmotic energy process, it’s the mixing of the salt and water that spins the turbine. Our method stores energy using a difference in salt concentration, making it unconstrained by geography.”

Similar to the way that a bank of batteries stores energy from solar panels for use on a day without sunshine, Bharadwaj’s technology stores it by using that energy to separate salt from water on sunny days, then mixing the salt back into the water to draw out that stored energy when it’s needed. The technology is intended for large-scale applications, as the tanks of briny and fresh water require significant space.

Bharadwaj expects the storage cost per kilowatt hour to range from 10 to 60 cents, a significant savings compared to costs of between 70 cents and $1.70 kw/h for storing energy in lead-acid batteries. “Our goal is to be cheap and environmentally benign,” he says. He hopes to have a pilot plant operational by 2020.

Funding for Bharadwaj’s work comes from the National Research CouncilECO Canada and private investors.

What do you love about your job?

“Research is about solving problems. Energy and water are the foundation of our societies, so it is surprising that one in ten people lack access to clean drinking water and approximately 25% of the world’s population lives in darkness. I believe that these problems can be solved with technology. Like how the deserts in Saudi Arabia were turned into farmland using desalination, and they now feed the majority of the region’s population.Research is also fun! It is very cool to come up with something no one else has ever come up with and it is satisfying to know that your technology has the potential to save lives.”

“There is no doubt that the world needs to shift away from fossil-fuel-based energy sources. In my co-ops, I carried out research with two of my inspiring professors, Henning Struchtrup and Tom Fyles, to improve the process of osmotic energy generation. Using osmosis, electricity is generated from mixing of two solutions of different salinity.

“Our technology, osmotic energy storage, is unconstrained by geography and has minimal environmental impacts, which makes it attractive. Also, it can be very cheap and long-lived, comparable to pumped hydro, so we believe it has great potential.”

“The UVic ME to WE club helped me give back to my own country while studying in Canada. I worked towards the water project, where we raised money and provided to the foundation based in Pushkar, Rajasthan, India. The money helped make water wells and pumps that provided water to the villagers.”

How does your work benefit the community?

“It is amazing how much power UVic researchers hold to make a difference. Research groups and professors on campus are dedicated to solving humanity’s problems. Our faculty is full of Canadian research chairs with great funding and passion.

From day one, we are told that we have the power to make a difference…that confidence is key.”

Instead of working at different companies, I used my co-ops to work with some excellent professors and bring my ideas to life. Without UVic’s co-op program, I’m not sure if I would have been able to do all the research that I have done so far. And I might not have had the chance to start my own company without my co-op experience (as the company is a product of my research experience).

Co-ops allowed to me to apply all the knowledge from my courses in a targeted fashion. With proper mentorship from the professors, I was able to publish papers and add useful information to our academic society.

As an international student, co-ops undoubtedly helped me learn the work culture here, which some say is very different from India. Also, co-ops helped me foster a strong professional network, which is key for a good career after graduation.