A company can make drinking water from nothing but air and sunlight

And it doesn't even need an energy grid.
Deena Theresa
SOURCE water farm in Dubai. SOURCE Hydropanels

Imagine this. Potable water as an unlimited resource, a sustainable development goal that keeps the benefits flowing. 

But, with increased water scarcity exacerbated by catastrophic climate change, the promise of easy access to clean, drinking water sounds like a dream that isn't rooted in reality.

To illustrate, constant changes in water cycle patterns and drastic increases in extraction for human use are making it more difficult to access safe drinking water. According to a report by UNICEF and WHO, one in three people in the world does not have access to safe drinking water. Natural disasters can also destroy or contaminate water supplies, making communities more susceptible to diseases like cholera and typhoid. UNICEF has found that, every day, more than 700 children under five die from diarrhea linked to inadequate water, sanitation, and hygiene.

It gets worse.

Increased water stress also leads to higher competition for water. This, in turn, can lead to conflict. Syria's civil war, to a large extent, has been linked to a severe drought.

While techniques for condensing water out of the air have been in use since ancient times, most modern condensers designed to produce large amounts of water need to be connected to the electricity grid, substituting one problem for another one. But, what if there were a solution? 

What if you can pull water out of thin air without using additional carbon or being connected to an energy grid?

SOURCE Global's hydropanels can do just that, and the technology is more science than fiction. The hydropanels utilize solar energy to condense clean, pollutant-free drinking water from the air. The onboard water reservoir can also be plumbed into a household, directly to the drinking tap. The system then takes it a step further by mineralizing the water for ideal hardness and taste, making high-quality water readily available.

Source's hydropanels have already found homes in 52 countries

"Girls and women spend an average of 200 million hours daily collecting water. That was the main motivation for our company — women shouldn't have to haul water anymore. It inspired Cody Friesen [the founder] to look into finding a way to tap this unlimited resource, which is water vapor in the air, and put it in the hands of people who need it," Thomas Borns, the U.S. Direct Sales Manager at SOURCE Global, tells IE in a video interview. 

The Hydropanel is a boon for people with poor access to clean drinking water, who have to trudge for hours to fetch it and don't have access to a reliable energy source.

Around the world, the onus of this responsibility — fetching water —primarily falls on women. This can hold them back from pursuing education, indulging in recreational and sport activities, and getting out of poverty. 

Of course, this global issue doesn't solely affect developing nations or people living in remote areas. Poor infrastructure, a lack of transparency around where water comes from, safety, and cost are also persistent problems in developed nations. 

"The most important impact of the hydropanels can be seen just a few hours from our company. And that's at Navajo Nation in northern Arizona. Navajo Nation has groundwater but it has been contaminated largely by depleted Uranium mines in the area. We had installed our hydropanels and a tap at an 83-year-old woman's house. And at 83, that was the first time here in the United States and her entire life that she'd ever had running water of any kind inside her home," says Borns. 

That kind of impact appears to be something that can be achieved right here in the United States. "And I think it's important for people to understand that water as an issue is not specific to the developing world. It's a problem here in the United States today," Borns continues.

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The following has been edited for length and clarity.

IE: What's the science behind the Hydropanel?

Thomas Borns: What we're doing inside our machine is causing passive condensation and using efficient means to collect that water. The Hydropanel comprises a traditional solar panel that powers the whole system. Flanking that on either side are these two black or dark rectangles we call solar thermal panels that take in as much thermal energy as possible. 

A company can make drinking water from nothing but air and sunlight
Water farm at Arizona State University. Source: SOURCE Hydropanels

Essentially what we're trying to do is get the inside of the panel to be hotter than the air that's around it. So that no matter where we are, like here in this desert environment that we designed the panels in, we can make water.

We can have these panels installed in a polluted environment and still get just pure water from the point of condensation.

This cooler ambient air is laden with water vapor which condenses into liquid water. And this liquid water is collected on a hygroscopic proprietary material inside the machine. The material allows for water molecules to pass through the membrane. 

We can have these panels installed in a polluted environment and still get just pure water from the point of condensation. Water that's condensed is super pure. It's essentially double distilled to the point where you wouldn't necessarily want to drink it. So we mineralize the water inside of the panel or in an adjacent tank with calcium and magnesium. Bringing the water up to a pH of about eight makes it taste good.

How many liters per month does one panel produce? Is there a certain percentage of a city or community's water supply that the arrays can produce?

It depends on the weather. Because we're a solar product, we need to have the sun to be able to power the system. But relative humidity will fluctuate dramatically anywhere on any given day, which means we can have days where we're making a lot more and have days we're making a lot less.

A single one of our newest panels, which we're calling Roxy, has been designed for a residential sort of use case. That panel will make about 15 cases of water per month, which is about 360 of those standard 6.9-ounce bottles of drinking water.

These numbers will be pretty different in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and here in Scottsdale. It varies from place to place.

As you mentioned earlier, people in some rural communities can spend a major part of their day traveling to water sources. How can the Hydropanels be a respite to such communities? Could you illustrate a few examples of how it has managed to include and involve local communities, whilst improving their lives?

This goes back to women in particular, for me. One of the very special projects that we did was at the Samburu girls' school in Kenya. Our initial installation was 40 panels. It's amazing to see the impact of these panels at that school, because even though it was a school in many ways—and they were able to provide care and education for these women—the students still had to fetch water from far. And when we installed these panels, we were able to diminish that tremendously. Instead of going out and filling up buckets of water and bringing it back to the school, these girls can now go fill up their bottles at these stations where there's a little dispenser.

Source hydropanel
In June 2018, 40 SOURCE Hydropanels were installed on the Samburu Girls Foundation campus. Source: SOURCE Hydropanels

Another example is an indigenous community on the northern coast of Colombia. Most of their water was brackish, and they had to do different sorts of boiling to make it drinkable. One of our installers was out there for almost a month living in tents, alongside the members of this community. It's just amazing to see how much this community came together to help with the installation and embrace this technology. 

You mentioned that water scarcity was something that isn't normally associated with developed countries. What are the biggest challenges when it comes to working on a global issue like water scarcity? How do you 'solve' water?

I think it comes with education. It has to do with people becoming aware of the importance of water. It can be tough depending on the community that you're in. I grew up in the desert, in Arizona. My mother's side was a ranching family and my dad's side had a lot of farmers, so I grew up with this understanding of water being precious as drought has always been an issue here in Arizona.

Water is a precious resource, and depending on where you are, it takes a lot of infrastructure to get clean water to you.

But then I go to other communities where the idea of drought and water scarcity hasn't been pounded into somebody's psyche from an early time. People turn on the tap, water comes out, and they're not that worried about it. So I think the first step is educating people on the understanding that this is a finite resource. 

Water is a precious resource, and depending on where you are, it takes a lot of infrastructure to get clean water to you. The first step in solving this is getting people educated to have a full understanding of this as a limited resource. The world is changing and we need to have solutions to counteract that.

We have a few startups that employ a similar technology - collecting water from the air. How different are the SOURCE hydropanels?

Most [startups] of what I'm aware of go by the term atmospheric water generator. These technologies use a form of active condensation which requires a lot of energy. Typically, atmospheric water generators require an ambient humidity of 30 to 40 percent. Often they will have a hard time keeping that water clean. What we use is passive condensation. 

And while that does mean we might produce water at a lower actual volume than some of those atmospheric water generators, we can also produce water quite literally anywhere. I've seen our panels make water in an environment with ambient humidity as low as seven percent, which is about as dry as it can get. 

Also, none of the other products that I've encountered are stand-alone. Our system is completely self-contained and self-powered. All we have to do is deploy them and orient them toward the sun. And then we can start making water. There's no other infrastructure required.

Those two key things, the fact that we use passive condensation instead of active condensation, and that we have no outside need for power, or any other infrastructure, are really what set us apart from anything else.

What are the current limitations of these hydro panels? Do we have solutions at hand?

Yeah, so the one major limitation is cold weather. 

There are 250 plus nodes and sensors inside each unit. So it's essentially its own weather station. It's smart enough to know when it should put itself into hibernation mode, and it does this for two reasons. 

One, if the system were to try to process ice, it can be very detrimental to the components inside the machine pumping ice. Additionally, because we're taking this water vapor out of the air, a lot of that water vapor that you're looking to harvest is now crystallized [below freezing]. So if you could get it to work below freezing temperatures, there's a whole other sort of heating element that is needed. And we have found that it probably requires another energy source. 

But we're working on finding a way to make that work. Because the reality is water issues don't stop when the weather gets cold. It does limit us a little bit, but we're working on finding ways to cross that chasm as well. 

Tell us about your future plans.

This new unit that I discussed earlier is going to be able to make water at night as well. I'm also really excited about the progress we're making with our station installations.

I think the truest and coolest application of these panels is when we can install just a handful for different homes and be surgical with where we're putting them. But having a big field and an array of these panels is a great way of providing water for a whole community at once.

I've had the pleasure and opportunity to work closely with some of our engineers as they develop and make that process more efficient - maximizing what we can get out of one acre covered in panels where that water is getting sent to one holding tank where it gets mineralized and processed. That's usually designed for a community.

Source hydropanel
SOURCE Hydropanels can be installed on or near your home, with flexible piping to deliver drinking water directly to a water tap or fridge dispenser. Source: SOURCE Hydropanels

This Earth Day's theme is 'Invest In your Planet'. Would you say that Source has/is doing its bit?

Well, I certainly would say we haven't done our bit because that sounds like we're done. We have a long way to go. Our mission statement is truly perfecting water for every person and making drinking water an unlimited resource. We won't be done until we've done that. 

Editor’s Note: This is a part of our series PLANET SOLVERS, where IE explores climate challenges, solutions, and those who will lead the way.