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Behind the $2,000 Device That Will Generate 5 Liters of Water a Day — in the Desert

Water scarcity is real. This company thinks it has a solution.

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BY Kevin J. Ryan - 07 Nov 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Zero Mass Water uses some nifty science to squeeze potable water from the air. Founder Cody Friesen, a materials scientist and associate professor at Arizona State University, spent nearly seven years developing the Source Hydropanel. Using solar power, a single system can produce enough drinking water for two to three people each day--even in desert conditions.

A Solar Still

"The problem statement was: How can we leapfrog infrastructure, just as cell phones do?" Friesen says. The solar panel converts sunlight to energy, which heats the material inside and creates condensation. Water collects in a 30-liter reservoir. Minerals are added to improve taste, and ozone is added to maintain purity. Then the water is pumped directly to a household tap or a refrigerator's fill station. Because the unit has its own solar panel, everything occurs off the grid. "We're accelerating water delivery from what is basically the Roman era into the 21st century."

By The NumbersLiters of clean H2O that can be produced daily: 5Cost for each Source panel: $2,000Funding raised: $38 millionNumber of diarrheal deaths caused by contaminated drinking water each year: 502,000Sources: World Health Organization

The Moisture Trap

The key is a super-absorbent, spongelike material that contains pores of varying sizes. A fan sucks air from the outside world and blows it through the material, which collects water at 20,000 times the concentration of vapor in the air. A microchip relays data on temperature, humidity, and water output, helping the company maximize water-producing efficiency.

A Thirst for Knowledge

Friesen was born and raised in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, which led him to think about water scarcity at an early age. Now, other students will follow in his footsteps: Several elementary schools in Arizona have installed Source panels to supply their water fountains. It's good hands-on science learning--even if the kids don't yet have a firm grasp on the thermodynamics.

Water, Water, Everywhere

The Source Hydropanel launched in late 2017, and its U.S. customers include commercial and residential buildings, schools, and private homes. The company has installed systems in low- infrastructure areas of Mexico, Jordan, and the Philippines, and it donated panels to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. "Drinking water," says Friesen, "is the greatest challenge facing humanity at almost every economic level."

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