US technology that can harvest drinking water from “thin air” using the power of the sun is set to be trialled in Australia, with backing from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
ARENA said on Monday that was providing $420,000 in funding to Arizona-based Zero Mass Water to test 150 of its solar-powered SOURCE drinking water systems across Australia, including Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and regional and remotes towns and communities.
The $821,500 pilot project will demonstrate the Arizona State University developed SOURCE hydropanel technology for the first time in Australia, showcasing its ability to produce clean, renewable, infrastructure-free drinking water using solar power.
The systems will be tested in a number of different locations, including airports, cafes, community centres, commercial buildings and sustainable properties, ARENA said.
And as well as providing a reliable source of potable water when and where it’s needed – regardless of the existing infrastructure – the pilot aims to reduce plastic bottled water usage, and cut the high energy costs associated with the supply of water.
How does the technology work?
Each hydropanel is made up of a centre strip of standard photovoltaic material, flanked on either side by a proprietary porous material that generates heat. Another proprietary material inside the panel absorbs the moisture from the air.
Air is drawn into the units by a fan, the water vapour is collected in a condenser, then flows into a reservoir, where calcium and magnesium is added to make the water more alkaline, and better tasting.
The final product – each panel can produce between 2-5 litres a day – is then pumped through to the consumer via a tap, or via a refrigerator with an integrated water dispenser or ice maker.
The systems also have a battery, so the water production can continue during cloudy periods and overnight.
And according to the website, the entire system should have a life of 15 years. During this time, each system’s performance is monitored and “optimised” remotely by the Zero Mass Water Network Operations Center.
The only hitch, of course, is the cost. As at November 2017 – when the SOURCE systems went on sale to the public in the US – the hydropanels were quoted as costing $US2000 each ($A2,640). A two-panel array was priced at $US4500 (nearly $A6000): $US2000 per panel, plus a $US500 installation fee.
As Dr Ashok Gadgil, Chair Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation in the Environmental Engineering department at UC Berkeley, put it in comments to The Verge late last year, whether or not SOURCE makes sense economically really depends on your circumstances.
“Condensing water from moisture in the air, is viable if I was on a desert island, I had lots of money and there was no other source of fresh water and I was going to die,” he said. “Then the value of my life is what is now pitted against the cost of that water.
“If am able to go to the supermarket and buy a bottle of water that’s the other alternative, the third alternative may be, I can just find some poor quality water and boil it and make it safe to drink.
“What is the comparison? Unless we define the competition, we wouldn’t know if this is the right affordability for the water.”
But for some of Australia’s remote and drought-prone communities, the energy self-sufficient and infrastructure-free SOURCE technology could be a god-send.
“The potential benefits of this technology to the environment are important,” said ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht.
“Using a combination of solar PV with solar thermal technology, SOURCE’s ability to create clean drinking water could be utilised to achieve positive solutions around water supply.
“This pilot project can produce reliable drought-resistant water sources to remote communities while simultaneously reducing the amount of plastic bottles that end up in landfill.”
And Frischknecht noted that the new technology could also be a win for the local solar market.
“Zero Mass Water’s project will create a product that offers a new application and market opportunity for the solar industry in Australia,” he said.
Sophie is editor of OneStepOffTheGrid.com.au and deputy editor of its sister site, RenewEconomy.com.au. Sophie has been writing about clean energy for more than a decade.