A system that extracts large amounts of drinking water from the air by burning biomass to create artificial clouds won the $1.5 million XPrize Water Abundance Competition on Friday.
The XPrize competition launched in October 2016 to address the critical water shortage faced by nearly a tenth of the world population. Participants had to create a system that could extract at least 2,000 liters of water from the air each day (approximately enough for 100 people) using only renewable energy and at a cost of less than two cents per liter.
The winning Wood-to-Energy Deployed Water System (WEDEW) basically creates artificial clouds inside a shipping container-sized box and then condenses them to a drinkable liquid. The system works by pulling in warmer air from outside the box and combining it with cold air inside, producing condensation.
To power the system, the team turned to burning wood chips and other biomass, a renewable source of energy that has the added benefit of producing heat. The extra heat and humidity allowed the system to extract even more water from the air.
In places where biomass isn’t readily available, the WEDEW can be converted to run on solar power.
The system is based on Skywater technology, an atmospheric water generator that has been under development by Florida-based company Island Sky since 2004. Although the Skysource/Skywater Alliance did not make it into the top five finalists earlier this year, it got back in the game after the Australian-based Hydro Harvest was “not able to move forward,” according to an XPrize spokesperson.
As cities such as Cape Town in South Africa grapple with the reality of running out of potable water, researchers have started getting creative with solutions. In recent years, dozens of companies have entered the atmospheric water-generation market. They’re seeking to tap into the approximately 3.4 quadrillion gallons (that’s 3,400,000,000,000,000) gallons of water trapped in the atmosphere at any given time.
While atmospheric water only accounts for about 4 percent of freshwater on Earth, it’s far less energy-intensive to extract than glacier water, which account for about two-thirds of Earth’s fresh water supply. Although the SKywater machine can produce water for less than 2 cents a liter, this doesn’t include the initial cost of the machine itself. A smaller version of Skywater that produces 150 liters per day costs $18,000. Motherboard reached out to the Skysource/Skywater Alliance to determine if a price has been set for the prototype that won the XPrize and will update this post if we hear back.
“Water is a human right,” Richard Groden, the president of Island Sky, said in a statement. “There is an abundant, untapped source of clean drinking water in the air around us. Our technology provides a very comprehensive solution to the water crisis that will work as well in the developing world as it will in the technologically advanced areas.”