Mineralizing rivers, desalinating oceans, drilling into the ground. There are many different ways to access drinking water in places where it’s in short supply. But with overpopulation, climate change and increasing water scarcity, innovators have been on the lookout for a new solution – and some are convinced the answer is up in the air.
SOURCE Global is one of the many companies around the world extracting water from the air, with the hope of helping water-scarce communities. However, its technology has a sustainable twist. Named Hydropanels, its devices are powered by built-in solar panels.
“You’re able to harvest water from the air using solar and nothing else, no need for electricity, no need for (a) grid, no need for infrastructure – it’s perfectly self-sufficient,” explains Vahid Fotuhi, the company’s vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Atmospheric water generators (AWGs), like SOURCE’s, are machines that produce potable water from surrounding air. These devices have been around for about a decade and traditionally they’re based on condensation – cooling water vapor to collect water droplets.
This process, however, can consume a lot of electricity and many of these early technologies only work in places with high air humidity. These constraints are what prompted SOURCE, formerly known as Zero Mass Water, to develop a more flexible and sustainable solution.
Its solar panels power a fan that draws in air. Inside the device, the air travels through a sponge-like material that traps the water vapor. As it is collected, magnesium and calcium are added to the water to improve its taste and provide possible health benefits. This means that mineralized drinking water can be produced from the air with renewable energy and zero waste.
In Dubai, where the company’s largest water farm is located, it produces 1.5 million liters of water every year. SOURCE plans to create a plastic-free bottled water brand and sell it to hotels and resorts, at about the same price as other bottled water brands.
The Middle East and North Africa's battle against water scarcity
SOURCE has installed its hydropanels around the world at hospitals, schools and work sites that have difficulties accessing water. It has also attracted commercial clients – particularly in countries catering to tourists in isolated landscapes, such as the desert.
“In the Middle East, we’ve seen a lot of interest in the hospitality sector as big brands look for a more sustainable solution for water to accommodates Millennials, who are looking for demonstrated sustainability,” says Fotuhi.
Currently, SOURCE’s flagship hospitality offering is in a luxury desert camp in Dubai, where its Hydropanels produce drinking water on site. Fotuhi believes it shows the scalability of these water generators, which could operate as one panel in a family home to or a number installed at large hotel resorts. Its next partnership will be in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, where a development company is aiming to build 18 hotels that will serve SOURCE’s water.
Fighting water scarcity?
According to Keith Hays, vice president of Bluefield Research, an advisory firm that addresses water challenges, SOURCE’s design is different from other AWGs because it combines solar-based power supply and water capture mechanism within the same structure, enabling off-grid operation. “Other systems usually have a separate panel or connect to the grid,” he explains.
Over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress and while the dozens of companies working on AWGs hope their devices will help solve this crisis, that would be unlikely, according to Hays.
High up-front costs mean it takes around 10 years for AWGs to be cost-competitive, he says and they generally produce a fraction of the water that a well or seawater desalination system can supply.
Plus, Hays says, AWGs require significant land, and distribution networks that aren’t as ubiquitous as other water solutions. He believes AWGs are more efficient when combined with other water supplies. “They can be seen as a complement to existing drinking water systems, reducing (the) footprint of plastics and offering auxiliary support,” he says.
This challenge is something that Fotuhi acknowledges, explaining that Hydropanels require the tap or a bottling facility to be nearby, and not every situation allows that. But but he believes they offer clear environmental benefits.
“Looking at the savings from an environmental perspective and from a sustainability point of view, the value proposition remains very strong,” says Fotuhi.