Sonnett describes the prototype as a “crazy-looking design,
like a pontoon boat with a big frame on it supporting a
heavy pendulum. The pendulum alone weighed about 1,100
The pontoon part would rock back and forth with the
waves, swinging the pendulum and driving pumps to suck in
seawater. The salt was removed by reverse osmosis, a process
that pressurizes water and runs it through a membrane that
filters out particles and dissolved salt.
After graduation, Sonnett, fellow project member Chris
Matthews and Laura Smailes, with the backing of Charlotte
entrepreneur Fred Wagner, formed a company called Eco
They worked out of Charlotte for two years in the research
and development phase to improve on their original design
and developed a buoy-shaped device “one-fourth the size of
the first with 10 times the amount of water for less than half
the cost,” Sonnett says. They named the buoy SAROS, for
Swell Actuated Reverse Osmosis System.
They moved to Wilmington to test out the second proto-type,
opening an office on Judges Road. They got a permit to
launch the buoy off Masonboro Island.
“The first time we put the buoy in the water was like the
most amazing feeling,” Sonnett says. “This thing you’ve put
all your heart and soul into, your child. And it worked. The
buoy we tested off Masonboro was basically a wave-powered
pump. It would intake seawater through a strainer, so we
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COURTESY OF JUSTIN SONNETT
WBM march 2018