A drop of water

XPrize calls on innovators to solve global water shortage with atmospheric extraction

Image credit: Pexels

Technology extracting water from air for as little as 2 cents per litre could provide people in some of the most arid parts of the world with easy access to fresh potable water in as little as two years, the XPRIZE Foundation believes. It is now launching a call for innovators from all over the world to join its new competition.

Zenia Tata, who leads the team behind the Water Abundance XPRIZE, hopes that technologists from various parts of the world will accept the challenge and develop solutions for their respective environments – be it freezing-cold regions of Scandinavia, isolated islands surrounded by ocean, or arid steppes of Australia and Africa.

“We have huge amounts of water in our atmosphere that we do not tap into,” Tata told E&T. “But we know from research that we can actually use this atmospheric water very safely without affecting the ecosystem. There are vast areas, especially between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, that although do not have enough fresh liquid drinkable water, have more than 60 per cent of water in the atmosphere, which could be extracted with the right technology.”

This technology would be hugely beneficial in places such as California, wrestling with long-lasting water shortages due to years of low rainfall, or Kenya, where 17.3 million people lack access to safe drinkable water, or Mumbai, which struggles to keep up with its growing population.

“If you look at the globe, you will see that almost everywhere – except some pockets of the Sahara desert in Africa, the Gobi desert in China and Thar in India – you do have sufficient air humidity for the technology we are looking to develop,” said Tata.

The idea to collect water from the air is not new. Evidence exists to say that the ancient Inca civilisation sustained its population in the arid regions of modern-day Peru by collecting dew. Water vapour condensed on pieces of vertically positioned canvas, from which it flowed into cisterns for use by the people. In fact, many plants growing in rainless regions survive by drawing water from the air through their leaves.

Commercial technologies already exist extracting drinkable water from air but are largely limited either by their high cost of operation or low yield. The efficiency also falls sharply at temperatures below 18°C, limiting practical use.

“We are requesting our teams to generate 2,000 litres of water within a 24-hour period at a cost of no more than 2 cents per litre, using preferably renewable energy, not fossil fuels,” said Tata. “This is not the kind of price to create a fun little device that will pull out two or three bottles of water. This is really for about a hundred people to be able to benefit from each machine on a day to day basis.”

The India-born entrepreneur and philanthropist envisions that, just as photovoltaic plants provide communities with an independent source of power, the technology to come out of the Water Abundance XPRIZE will do away with the reliance on municipal water suppliers.

“We are actually trying to create a completely new market to access water in a completely decentralised way where you don’t need pipes, you just put a machine and a tank on the top of your house. You can extract this water from the atmosphere and fill the tank and you can have water on demand without relying on the municipal government resources,” Tata explained.

The venture, no doubt, has life-saving and life-changing potential. According to estimates, around the world 4,100 children die every day of waterborne diseases. Women and girls in developing countries spend an incredible 200 million hours per day hauling water.

“Can you imagine these 200 million hours to be put to work if these girls were educated instead?” remarked Tata.

Tata hopes as many teams as possible from all parts of the world will register for the competition by the deadline on 31 March this year.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all solution, the entrepreneur expects a variety of solutions to be developed for different environmental conditions.

“Teams from different parts of the world will essentially be designing for their local market and the technologies will be tested in the respective geographies,” said Tata.

“We already have a couple of teams from Northern Europe, which is interesting for us because that’s one area where the air is so cold that it’s going to be difficult because temperature really impacts how much water you can take out from the atmosphere. We have recently started a huge team recruitment push in the Asia Pacific region and in Australia and we hope to get some good teams from island nations that are completely surrounded by water that is not fresh.”

Unlike the Google Lunar XPRIZE, which has been running for nearly a decade, the Water Abundance XPRIZE comes with a rather ambitious timeline. The foundation expects to select five to ten teams from the original pool of whitepaper submissions by the end of this year. The finalists will receive funding of between $20,000 to $50,000 to build their prototypes to be tested in mid-2018.

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