Ethiopia grows 90% of the world’s “teff,” a grain commonly used in Africa to make the traditional bread, injera. But due to drought and the lack of working well pumps, teff can only be grown during the one short rainy season.

So Professor Mark Talesnick, who founded Israel’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and has been leading student projects in the rural Ethiopian village of Mek’ele Kristos since 2013, along with a team of scientists from the Technion and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, developed a unique water pump powered by solar energy to improve agricultural yield in remote areas. Like all EWB projects, it is built simply and inexpensively, relying on readily available resources, so it can be easily adopted and maintained by the community.

The team developed a thermoacoustic pump that does not have pistons or other moving parts, and looks like a conical pipe. The wide end absorbs sunlight and heats the gas in that area. The hot gas expands and contracts along the pipe, causing thermoacoustic instability — or simply put, sound waves. The sound waves act as a kind of moving piston that generates pumping in pulses.

Professor Mark Talesnick and the research team.

The research team.

The pump project stems from a sizeable grant awarded by the Mauerberger Foundation Fund Research Award for Transformative Technologies for Africa. The money “granted us the unique opportunity to harness technology that we developed in the laboratory for the benefit of the village,” said Technion Professor Guy Ramon. But which technology?

They considered water purification methods and tech that would extract water from the air to counter Ethiopia’s arid conditions. But what mattered most was finding the technology that would generate the greatest positive change. “Here the EWB Technion people came to our aid,” said Prof. Ramon. “They conducted an in-depth survey of the target community and came back to us with a clear answer … The solution that will make the greatest contribution to the villagers’ quality of life is pumping water from the wells.”

In years prior, a group of Technion EWB students worked side-by-side with members of Mek’ele Kristos to build a system for storing rainwater in the local school. That development freed many of the village girls from missing school to carry water from the wells.

The pump

The solar water pump.

A prototype of the thermoacoustic pump has already been built and successfully demonstrated in the lab. The next step is to try it in the real world. Since the device is built with radiator parts, recycled plastic, and a metal pipe, the researchers say it can be implemented in other remote areas of the world that do not have a regular power supply. Moreover, the technology can be used to develop innovative cooling systems for refrigerators and air conditioners.

“That’s why we hope and believe that this development will bring change not only in Mek’ele Kristos, but in many places that suffer from inadequate water and power availability, as well as a reduction of our dependence on electricity for space cooling,” said Prof. Ramon.