Water from thin air, powered by the sun: US tech to be trialled in Australia

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US technology that can harvest drinking water from the air using solar power to be trialled around Australia, with backing from ARENA.

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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 Vorrath

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.

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16 Comments
  1. Brunel 8 months ago

    How is bottled water still a thing? There should be water vending machines everywhere along with QI wireless charging pads for phones.

    • My_Oath 8 months ago

      There are already ‘water vending machines’ everywhere. They are called ‘a tap’!

      I can’t get over the amount of people paying a bloody fortune forr plastic bottles just to throw them away after drinking the “Spring Water” (tap water) out of them.

  2. john 8 months ago

    I would not rush to install in major cities considering the amount of particulate matter in the air.
    Paris for instance gains 10 tonnes of 2.5- 10 PMs per year from the polluted air.
    Mind that tap water also contains micro plastics as does every source of water.
    Filtering out the micro plastics is going to prove the next hurdle to cross in the so called advanced world.

  3. wmh 8 months ago

    $2000 for a 15 year lifetime producing a guaranteed 2L a day. That’s 18c/L or $180/1000L compared to Sydney Water’s charge of $2.28/1000L, (ignoring future worth considerations).

  4. Joe 8 months ago

    Why?

  5. Ian 8 months ago

    ARENA, is supposed to be a gatekeeper for public funds to filter out bullshit projects such as this one .

    • solarguy 8 months ago

      Agree, it’s only worth is in deserts or high drought areas.

      • frustraated 8 months ago

        A solar still is almost free. Use a bunch of chopped up desert plants (or urine), a plastic clear tarp, a stone and a container to catch the water.

  6. Alexander Hromas 8 months ago

    Did someone check the value of this. Any de-humidification system will produce lots of water where the humidity is high like in a rain forest. In places like this there is generally surface water. How dose it compare to traditional de-humidification using refrigeration to lower the air temperature below dew point to condense the water. This technology is mature and in use i.e. you can buy a refrigerator type clothes dryer and the internal surfaces of large steel bridges are protected from rusting by dehumidifying the air in them.

  7. solarguy 8 months ago

    There was an Aussie who invented the same or similar a decade ago.

  8. frustraated 8 months ago

    $2,000. 2-5 liters/day (about 1/2-1 1/4 gallons/day.) And it has a battery. I’d rather set up a few solar stills (old fashioned survival skill) and drink for free. You can do it on a desert—just make enough of them. My $2,000 can be spent on a whole lot of garden seeds, fruit trees and berry bushes while this “technology” only produces enough water for 1 and 1/4 person A DAY! Sheesh!🙄

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