Tapping into the Waterways in the Sky

Tapping into the Waterways in the Sky


With all of the water we have in the world, only 2% of it is fresh water. To make matters worse, only one-forth of all fresh water is accessible to humans.

Until now, the entire human race has survived on 0.5% of the available water on earth. But that’s about to change.

We are seeing a fast growing trend towards harvesting water from the atmosphere, something our ancestors first began working on centuries ago. People in the Middle East and Europe devised the original air-well systems over 2,000 years ago. Later the Incas were able to sustain their culture above rain line by collecting dew and channeling it into cisterns for later use.

Even though these techniques have been around for a long time, technology in this area has recently taken a quantum leap forward, and many are beginning to think in terms of houses that generate their own water supply, self-irrigating crops, and even “waterless” cities.

The earth’s atmosphere is a far more elegant water distribution system than rivers, reservoirs, and underground waterways. Our current systems involve pipes and pumping stations that are expensive to operate and maintain, and easily contaminated.

Since we all depend on the rains to provide the water we need, what if we could extract this rain at the very time and place we need it? On-demand water extractors.

A new breed of inventors has emerged to tackle this exact problem. Using solar, wind, and other forms of passive energy, our future water networks will be operate with far more efficiency and convenience than anything imaginable today.

NBD Nano’s Atmospheric Water Generation

The 2012 NBD Nano Competition - NBD Nano – http://www.nbdnano.com/

Last year MIT worked with NBD Nano on a competition to devise future uses for their super condensation technology. In total, they received 81 entries, some of which were quite ingenious.

NBD Nano had developed a unique surface coating comprised of patterned superhydrophilic (water loving) and superhydrophobic (water hating) surfaces, on the nano-scale. Together these surfaces dramatically increased the efficiency of moisture condensation and, by extension, harvesting water from air.

Submissions ranged from self-filling water bottles, to extreme dehumidification, to a large-scale water sources for greenhouse drip irrigation, to emergency water for lifeboats, to self-filling canteens for the military, and much more.

The winning entry, titled “The Aquamist,” presented a simple elegant design for the emerging aquaponics and hydroponics industries. These small-scale agricultural operations require high humidity environments, and The Aquamist produced a water-replenishing environment to satisfy those needs.

More about the other entries here - http://grabcad.com/challenges/atmospheric-water-generator/entries

Meet the Water Harvesters

A new breed of companies has begun to spring up around the world, looking to the skies to solve the world’s looming water issues. These companies are using a variety of technologies to drive costs down for extracting water from air.

Here are some of the true innovators in this space:

FogQuest - http://www.fogquest.org

FogQuest is a Canadian non-profit that uses modern fog collectors to bring drinking water and water for irrigation and reforestation to rural communities in developing countries around the world. Their fog collectors can be used in dry regions and even deserts that receive less than one millimeter of rain each year. But to work, they do require fog and light winds.

EoleWater - http://www.eolewater.com/

Living in the Caribbean in 1997, inventor Marc Parent came up with the idea of using a windmill to extract water from the air. With a French venture capital investment, Parent moved the company to Sainte Tulle, France. After many years of development and testing, the WMS1000 (shown above) became the world's first wind turbine able to produce 1,000 liters of water a day from air condensation. The first unit was shipped to Abu Dhabi for extended testing in the extreme weather conditions of the Middle East.

Airdrop - http://www.jamesdysonaward.org/Projects/Project.aspx?ID=1722

Developed by James Dyson Award winner, Edward Linnacre, the Airdrop irrigation concept was developed for poor agricultural conditions in periods of severe drought. Extensive research into droughts revealed an increase in soil evaporation and trans-evaporation (plant and soil) due to the increasing temperatures. Airdrop Irrigation works to provide a solution to this problem. Moisture is harvested out of the air to irrigate crops through an efficient system that produces large amounts of condensation. A turbine intake drives air underground through a network of piping that rapidly cools the air to the temperature of the soil where it reaches 100% humidity and produces water. The water is then stored in an underground tank and pumped to the roots of crops via sub surface drip irrigation hosing.

A2WH – http://a2wh.com/

Developed by Joe Ellsworth in Seattle, the A2WH system uses a desiccant to absorb moisture from the air. The higher the humidity the more water the desiccant can absorb. The unit uses solar heat to drive both the airflow for the absorption process and to provide heat during the regeneration process that extracts the moisture from the desiccant and allows it to capture the water in liquid form. A small Photo Voltaic solar panel provides power for the micro controller, sensors, various valves, etc.

EcoloBlue - http://www.ecoloblue.com/

EcoloBlue has created an off-grid water harvester/dispenser specifically for the home or office. The unit shown above, the EcoloBlue 30, only requires 300 Watts to operate efficiently, and is designed to work with PV solar panels and batteries, to continually generate water even in emergency situations. It will generate between 1-3 Gallons Water / day depending on the humidity conditions and sun conditions.

Technion - http://www1.technion.ac.il/en

Technion, an Israel Institute of Technology, has come up with an unusual water extraction concept. Two architects invented this low-tech way of collecting dew and turning it into fresh water. It works well for collecting water in virtually any environment, even in polluted areas. About 12 gallons of fresh water can be extracted from air in a single day from one 300 sq ft unit. This technology recently won an international competition.

DropNet Fog Collector - http://www.greenmuze.com/nature/water/2358-fog-harvesting-dropnet-.html

Imke Hoehler, an inductrial design student at Germany’s Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts has turned a lot of heads with her thesis project, the DropNet fog collector. The collectors extracts tiny water droplets from fog clouds and turns them into drinking water at a rate of roughly 4-5 gallons a day.

Mist Water Canarias – http://www.aguadeniebla.com/

Developed over the past 5 years on the Canary Islands by Hernando Theo Olmo and Ricardo Gil, the "Water Gardens" are groupings of water-extracting towers for high volume and high quality water. Some of the planned uses are for forests, camping, fire suppression, agriculture, livestock, and human consumption.

The Self-Filling Water Bottle - http://www.behance.net/gallery/Atmospheric-Water-Collector/3949181

The Atmospheric Water Collector shown above is still not a functional product, but Canadian design student Thomas Row gives us an idea of what it may look like. With a portable water extractor that fits on most any bottle, the goal is to provide for all the basic water needs of a person on a daily basis.

Final Thoughts - Prospects for the Future

There are roughly 37,500 trillion gallons of "fresh" water in the air at any given time. The age-old problem has been getting it to people who need it at exactly the right time.

In liquid form, water is heavy and difficult to transport. Plastic bottle made water far more transportable, but it created a whole new set of problems.

Every day, millions of plastic water bottles, cups and containers are transported around the world by exhaust-spewing steamships, trains, and trucks, only to be discarded, thrown into landfills, and onto our streets. And most of our current bottles don’t degrade.

A high percentage of the products we buy in grocery stores contain water. Everything from pop, to juice, to vegetables, to beer, to soup, and much more. Transporting water is expensive, so what if the containers automatically added the water directly from the atmosphere once we took it home?

Is it possible to add a water extracting ground spike next to every plant or tree in our garden?

Is this a technology light enough for every athlete to carry with them, every adventurer to wear on their belt, and every soldier, sailor, and construction worker to have within arm’s reach at any given moment?

Will atmospheric water extractors replace city reservoirs, dams, water towers, and our elaborate network of fire hydrants throughout every community?

To me, the handwriting is on the wall. Today’s steel pipes will soon be replaced with tomorrow’s air pipes, and we will forget what life was like when chlorine-tasting water was an everyday occurrence.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything



11 Responses

  1. Renee Smith


    This area of exploration is of particular interest to me as my mother has sat on the board of a water district for many years and I have gained knowledge from her experience. What an exciting future lies ahead for these explorers of the skies! Thank you for including this subject matter in your presentations and for keeping us posted on future developments. Your expertise is most appreciated!

  2. FuturistSpeaker


    Thanks for the kind words. When I started researching this topic,I was blown away by how much work was being done in this area. The companies I mentioned were just scratching the surface.

    Thomas Frey

  3. Tom,

    Last year EJ and I tried building a no-moving-parts atmospheric water condensing unit using a photovoltaic panel, and a peltier device mounted in its shade. I learned a lot, but it was too inefficient. However, with the new nano-coatings perhaps this might still work. It’s great to see all the other inventions making progress on this subject.

  4. Bill Trowbridge

    Invention: To “purify” water.
    Non-potable water could be used for a Zeer pot, providing evaporative cooling, which could then extract pure potable water from the air. Potable and non-potable reservoirs are kept completely separate. No additional energy required. Zeer pot requires dry, ventilated area.

  5. CaptD

    We are just beginning to see what wind turbines can do!

    Imagine a new “future” Multi-Functional Wind Turbine (MFWT™) that could “shift” from producing electricity to making water as the grid load or water “need” changes! This concept would provide a single solution to two of the major problems facing all developing Nations, a reliable source of Energy and a reliable source of Clean Water… Source: Clean Technica (http://s.tt/17YRk)

    Check this out: A turbine that makes water from the desert air:http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/a-turbine-that-makes-water-from-the-desert-air/14701?tag=nl.e660
    and this: Israeli device takes the thirst out

    Now put the two together and imagine a new “future” Multi-Functional Wind Turbine (MFWT™) that could “shift” from producing electricity to making water or even Hydrogen (in liquid form) as the grid load or water “need” changed!

    Maybe I’ll get the first Solar O’Neill (SON) award for the idea!

  6. pratik Ranjan

    very encouraging. We have to see how it is converted in to practice and what time.

  7. Gavin

    The cheaper energy gets the cheaper processed sea water will be. If Lockheed Martin Skunk Works can really produce mobile factory made and mass produced fusion reactors a lot of humanity’s problems will be solved.

    On a side note if you read this Mr Frey, would you consider supporting Ocean Iron Fertilisation. This could potentially halt global warming and increase depleted fish stocks. Obviously small steps need to be taken so the risks can be properly evaluated.

  8. Don Johnston

    These ideas are beautiful in their conception and the implementation would give people greater power over their environment. They are steps away from the biological reality that created and sustains us. It would be a difficult choice were a choice available, but technology is a monster unto itself. As you point out, soldiers etc. Will people making the deserts bloom will expand human population? Will extracting water from already dry areas affect the ecology of deserts that might depend on dew? We cannot favor ourselves without disrespecting the world around us. A simple basic sustainable human presence on our wonderful natural world seems a very distant concept from the economic and industrial system necessary to create and maintain these ingenious mechanisms. Mechanisms for capturing water that otherwise perform unknown, and yet undiscovered functions of humidity and fog, both thrills and terrifies me. May we all not drown in our genius.

  9. It may interest you to know that the world’s only village of over 600 inhabitants is drinking atmospheric water every single day since the last 5 years from our WaterMaker Water Station. We set this up at Jalimudi Village in Andhra Pradesh, India as part of our social program. Our WaterMakers range from 120 litres to over 5000 litres. We are now exploring options using alternate power but so far the capital costs have been very high for a feasible solution. If anyone has some cost effective ideas, do let us know. Alternate Water combined with Alternate Power could benefit everyone.

  10. The general worldwide solution is Cloud Power – AirHES – http://airhes.com

  11. Thanks for showing our A2WH technology in your write up. A2WH grow dryland is a simplified version of A2WH that can support growing trees on degraded land that is at risk of being abandoned due to desertification. A2WH Grow dryland provides the foundation to rehabilitate this land and turn it from a liability providing nothing but dust and silt back into land that produces edible fodder to sustain sheep and animals during drought conditions and nitrogen rich compost during good water years. Grow dryland makes it feasible to grow trees on land where they would be unlikely to survive long enough to become established. We designed grow dryland to reduce the need for people to migrate due to water scarcity and increasing degradation.

    We feel Grow Dryland is important because the U.N. has predicted hundreds of millions of people will migrate by 2030 due to water scarcity and we are already starting to see the death toll as desperate people attempt to migrate from africa into europe as the first wave of this migration. We designed Grow dryland to tackle the underlying culprit that will drive most of the migration. Now we just have to get it deployed at a scale that is meaningful.

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