Something for nothing: can hydropanels make water out of thin air to solve a global crisis?

By Hyeonji Kim

It is now an undeniable fact that climate change is causing more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Droughts are causing groundwater and rivers to dry up and floods and hurricanes are contaminating the existing water supply, while glaciers are melting at record speed, depleting sources of freshwater.

According to the World Health Organisation, more than two billion people in the world already lack access to safe drinking water. Climate change-fuelled, weather-related disasters will only intensify, further exacerbating this water security issue. Recent scientific innovations have attempted to address this issue, but do we have a real solution yet?

Cody Friesen, professor at Arizona State University and Founder of SOURCE (previously called Zero Mass Water), might have an answer to the problem: hydropanels.

SOURCE hydropanels essentially harvest clean drinking water from the atmosphere. Harnessing solar power and the science of thermodynamics, SOURCE taps into the abundant supply of water vapour that is contained in the atmosphere around us by capturing the water molecules and condensing them into liquid water.

The pure water, free of pollution, is then filtered and mineralised to provide electrolytes for hydration, and to improve the quality and taste of the water. This converted water is stored in a reservoir attached to the hydropanels and delivered to a tap.

More than two billion people in the world already lack access to safe drinking water

SOURCE hydropanels are now installed in more than 50 countries around the world, serving everything single households, schools, hospitals, worksites, and even entire communities. Each panel produces three to five litres of clean water each day completely off-grid, which can provide vital support to remote communities suffering from water crisis.

SOURCE has already come to rescue in some drought-stricken areas. For example, in Kenya’s Rift Valley hydropanels save young girls from the long perilous journeys previously needed to fetch water, and the indigenous community of Bahía Hondita in Columbia use 149 hydropanels to produce 22,000 litres of drinking water per month.

Thanks to their ability to extract pure water molecules and leave pollution behind, SOURCE hydropanels can provide safe drinking water in the event of natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes that often cause water supply contamination, power outages and disruption to infrastructure. An additional benefit is that the technology is eco-friendly, operating on renewable energy and reducing waste from single-use plastic water bottles.

The promising potential of SOURCE hydropanels have attracted more than $100m of investment so far. However, SOURCE has been subject to heavy criticism especially around productivity, with some sceptics even going as far as to claim that it’s better to simply collect rainwater and provide water filters.

Indeed, despite the hydropanels’ capacity to function in low-humidity environments, such as the arid Arizona desert where the SOURCE headquarter office is located, their performance is still highly dependent on the level of sunlight and humidity.

Water production will slow down in severe cloud cover or low humidity conditions to produce as little as two litres per panel per day, meaning additional hydropanels will need to be installed to generate the same amount of water as advertised. What’s more the hydropanels also stop functioning in freezing temperatures. Given a single person needs approximately 50 litres of water a day to meet basic needs, these potentially low outputs are concerning.

However, an upfront cost of $6,500 for just two panels is not cheap…

There is also the question of cost-effectiveness. A standard SOURCE hydropanel array which consists of 2 hydropanels, will cost around $6,500, including installation fees. Some may argue that hydropanels are a long-term investment piece given their estimated lifespan of 15 years, which will effectively means that water will cost just $0.15 per bottle.

However, an upfront cost of $6,500 for just two panels is not cheap, especially for the limited amount of water it generates. This initial cost is significantly more expensive than getting water delivered through portable water trucks or installing conventional pipework.

Although hydropanels may become more cost-effective with technological advancements as was the case with solar panels, at the moment it’s unlikely that SOURCE’s product can solve water scarcity issues without a substantial increase in the technology’s productivity or heavy external funding to install large fields of hydropanel arrays.

Current hydropanel technology doesn’t seem to be a perfect solution to water scarcity issues, but I think we can agree that it’s a step in the right direction. Whilst we hope for an improvement in hydropanel technology that will render them more practical, perhaps we should also take action by changing our consumption behaviours. Instead of leaving it all to the scientists, we should also be pushing for regulatory changes and improvements in public water supply infrastructure. It may be too late at this point to simply wait for a game-changing invention to miraculously save us from the consequences of climate change.

Image: American Public Power Association on Unsplash

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