Making water from air wins couple $1.5 million XPrize

Making water from air wins couple $1.5 million XPrize

Today, 790 million people — 11 percent of the world’s population — live without access to clean water.

Two years ago, XPrize, an international nonprofit organization, announced a global competition enticing innovators to find a sustainable and affordable way to bring potable water to those who aren’t privileged enough to have it now.

Skeptics told the competition organizers that it was impossible.

Nearly 100 submissions later, and XPrize found precisely what they were looking for — entrepreneurs who could design a minimalistic device that could reliably extract 2,000 liters of water from the atmosphere per day for no more than two cents per liter all using 100 percent renewable energy.

This weekend, the organization announced the winners of the $1.5 million grand prize.

Cape Town’s reservoir is rapidly approaching day zero as the local reservoir runs out of water.

Cape Town’s reservoir is rapidly approaching day zero as the local reservoir runs out of water.

Image: earth observatory/nasa

Out of the 98 entries from 27 different countries, Skywater/Skysource Alliance — a team of sustainability experts from Venice Beach, California led by architect David Hertz and inventor Rich Groden — outlasted the competition, overcoming various obstacles to ultimately be selected as the prize winner.

Zenia Tata, Chief Impact Officer at XPrize, said the challenges they faced were really meant to put the innovators to the test.

Nothing hypothetical, incomplete, or dysfunctional was considered. They wouldn’t extend the timeframe, even if the mistakes were out of character for the team, and there were no exceptions.

“If you cannot win the race on game day, you cannot win the XPrize,” Tata said. The tight restrictions knocked out three of the five remaining finalists.

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In the week of final testing, where the goal was to run the device for 24 hours straight, the Skywater/Skysource Alliance pulled away from the other remaining competitor JMCC Wing (another American team who the judges initially believed would win) after the circuit breaker for the team’s windmill broke at the last minute.

The winning device, called a Skywater machine, simulates the temperature at which dew formation is possible, creates water, and then filters it using very little energy.

Hertz told XPrize that Skywater/Skysource was trying to change the relationship that the world has with water.

“We believe water is a fundamental human right and should be decentralized, abundant, and democratized,” he said.

After a long dry summer, Manchester England’s reservoir is suffering from low levels of water.

After a long dry summer, Manchester England’s reservoir is suffering from low levels of water.

Image: Getty Images/anthony devlin

A less advanced version of the product is actually already on the market and has been endorsed by many activists — like Miranda Kerr — who support the company’s commercial attempt to revolutionize water.

The prize money is sure to help them continue in that effort.

And though their contribution to clean water efforts is noteworthy in and of itself, Tata said the competition is just beginning.

She expects several of the inventions submitted to the competition will be successful on the market, once the entrepreneurs have more time, resources, and investors.

“Now that we can share the proof that it can be done, we hope that we can crack open a new market. But we know it won’t happen overnight,” she said.
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — It started out modestly enough: David Hertz, having learned that under the right conditions you really can make your own water out of thin air, put a little contraption on the roof of his office and began cranking out free bottles of H2O for anyone who wanted one.

Soon he and his wife, Laura Doss-Hertz, were thinking bigger — so much so that this week the couple won the $1.5 million XPrize For Water Abundance. They prevailed by developing a system that uses shipping containers, wood chips and other detritus to produce as much as 528 gallons (2,000 liters) of water a day at a cost of no more than 2 cents a quart (1 liter).

The XPrize competition, created by a group of philanthropists, entrepreneurs and others, has awarded more than $140 million over the years for what it calls audacious, futuristic ideas aimed at protecting and improving the planet. The first XPrize, for $10 million, went to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aviation pioneer Burt Rutan in 2004 for SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned space flight.

When Hertz learned a couple of years ago that a prize was about to be offered to whoever could come up with a cheap, innovative way to produce clean freshwater for a world that doesn’t have enough of it, he decided to go all in.

At the time, his little water-making machine was cranking out 150 gallons a day, much of which was being given to homeless people living in and around the alley behind the Studio of Environmental Architecture, Hertz’s Venice Beach-area firm that specializes in creating green buildings.

He and his wife, a commercial photographer, and their partner Richard Groden, who created the smaller machine, assembled The Skysource/Skywater Alliance and went to work. They settled on creating little rainstorms inside shipping containers by heating up wood chips to produce the temperature and humidity needed to draw water from the air and the wood itself.

“One of the fascinating things about shipping containers is that more are imported than exported, so there’s generally a surplus,” said Hertz, adding they’re cheap and easy to move around.

And if there’s no wood chips around for heat, coconut husks, rice, walnut shells, grass clippings or just about any other such waste product will do just fine.

“Certainly in regions where you have a lot of biomass, this is going to be a very simple technology to deploy,” said Matthew Stuber, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Connecticut and expert on water systems who was one of the panel’s judges.

He called their water-making machine a “really cool” merging of rather simple technologies that can be used to quickly deliver water to regions hit by natural disasters, stricken by drought or even rural areas with a shortage of clean water.

Hertz and Doss-Hertz are just starting to contemplate how to accomplish that.

Theirs was among 98 teams from 27 countries who entered the competition. Many teams were bigger and better funded, while the couple mortgaged their Malibu home to stay in the game. At one point, they were told they hadn’t made the final round of five, but one team dropped out and they were back in.

“If you say we were the dark horse in the race, we weren’t even in the race,” Hertz recalled, smiling.

He stood near a giant copy of the check in his office while Doss-Hertz prepared to leave for a photo shoot and a visitor sampled a glass of their freshly made water.

Now, though, they are in for the long, wet haul.

“There’s no restrictions whatsoever on how it’s used,” Hertz said of the prize money. “But Laura and I have committed to using it all for the development and deployment of these machines, to get them to people who need the water most.”