A couple mortgaged their home to fund the development of a technology platform that makes fresh water from air, according a story by Afdhel Aziz published in Forbes magazine. Now, architect David Hertz and his wife, photographer Laura Doss-Hertz and their Skywater/Skysource Alliance have won the prestigious $1.5 million Water Abundance XPRIZE, sponsored by India's Tata Group and Australian Aid. The XPRIZES incentivizes teams that are tackling some of the world’s most serious problems.
They won the prize for being the first team that was able to create "an easily deployable high-volume water generator that can be used in any climate, meeting the competition parameters of extracting a minimum of 2,000 liters of water per day from the atmosphere using 100 percent renewable energy, at a cost of no more than two cents per liter."
Their winning system, called WEDEW (“wood-to-energy deployed water”) combined existing Skywater technology which forms air from condensation with a biomass gasifier. The gasifier can be fueled by low-cost materials such as wood chips or coconut shells, which can then be used for biochar as an added bonus. The system can also run on solar and battery power.
It’s already dispensing water created from the air. Hertz installed a Skywater device at his SEA Architects office in Venice Beach, California to provide free water to the homeless – who had no source of it, as the city shut it off during the recent drought. “The idea that I could just make water from the air and give it away for free was really a compelling notion,” Hertz told Aziz. “I incorporated a bottle-filling station in the alley and used solar to generate the energy for it."
He explained that the Skywater products were designed primarily for very hot, humid climates. He brought them into California because of the drought, and to use in his architecture projects as part of an integrated systems approach.
This isn’t the only community-minded thing Hertz does. "I continue to water 88 urban farm boxes in Venice through a nonprofit called Community Healing Gardens,” Hertz told Aziz. “They work with another nonprofit called Safe Place For Youth, which takes teenagers that have aged out of the foster care program and are on the streets, and helps give them jobs picking up the water and watering these farm boxes.”
“So the idea is, that we're taking the light and making electricity, and then using electricity to make water and give water away and create jobs and help feed people,” Hertz added, according to the article. “It’s all part of this energy-water-food nexus that is so, so needed."
The story explains how Hertz, as an architect, has always promoted sustainability. Currently, he’s exploring the idea of 'regenerative architecture'. "I've always been fascinated with the concept that we can move beyond sustainability to a restorative, regenerative way of building, where buildings give back more than they take,” he told Aziz. “We take an integrated approach where we will capture all sources of water, whether it's stormwater, gray water, laundry-to-landscape, atmospheric water and condensate.”
The Skywater system doesn’t have a problem making clean water from dirty air, either. “Water that's just been made from the air has a much higher oxygen content and it doesn't have any of the minerals or chemicals,” Hertz told the writer. “So basically it's what’s considered to be pure, medical-grade water.”
Hertz foresees that the price of the basic Skywater units will go down over time, making them more accessible. "A small unit for an office can be as small as $1,500 and a 30-gallon a day unit could be $5,000.”
"Without water, there's no life,” Hertz told Aziz. “And when one thinks about how less than one percent of all the water on the planet is actually fresh water and is unevenly and geographically distributed, it's a pretty humbling fact to look at water as this amazing material that is incredibly scarce.”
In the article, Aziz, the story’s author, speculated that this technology could one day be as ubiquitous as solar panels, leading to a decentralized system of water capture and distribution which takes pressure off aging public infrastructure. In the developing world, communities that never had that infrastructure in the first place could simply skip that step, much as mobile phones bypassed the need for landlines.