The inventors of an incredible device that literally pulls fresh drinking water out of thin air won $1.5 million prize on Monday.
The Skysource/Skywater Alliance won first place in the Water Abundance XPRIZE, a competition created by the Tata Group and Australia’s Aid Program that challenges teams to use energy efficient ways to help with the global water crisis. The Water Abundance XPRIZE encouraged designers to create a device “that could extract at least 2,000 liters of water a day from the atmosphere (enough for the daily needs of around 100 people), use clean energy, and cost no more than 2 cents a liter.”
The prize-winning machine uses clean energy to produce up to 300 gallons of water per day, Fast Company reports. It relies on a wood-to-energy deployed water system — or WEDEW system — which combines two devices: the Skywater machine (a box that condenses atmospheric moisture) and a biomass gasifier, according to Fast Company.
Over 780 million people around the world are plagued by water scarcity due to both limited access to water and contamination. While air-to-water devices such as this already exist, many are expensive and environmentally detrimental.
However, Skysource/Skywater Alliance’s project burns biomass to create artificial clouds in shipping containers from which the Skywater machine gathers warm air and combines it with cold air to form condensation, which is then turned into drinking water.
It also has several environmental benefits. The gasifier powers the machine as a low-cost energy source and can be filled with wood, coconut shells, or other resources found in the local environment. Additionally, it creates biochar, a charcoal that can be added to soil to preserve carbon and help with plant growth.
“I think the future of technologies is going to be moving to this restorative, regenerative model that actually helps to repair the damage we’ve done,” said David Hertz, an architect that helped to create Skywater technology and worked on the project.
The gasifier allows freshwater to be created in any environment. In California, the home state of the founders of Skysource, the company behind the Skywater machines, dead pine trees could be used to fuel the gasifier. Using dead pine trees could also help prevent forest fires in the disaster-prone state as dead trees left in that environment increase the risk of forest fires, which release carbon dioxide.
The machine repurposes the carbon it generates to add to soil while also creating freshwater. This is particularly useful for California, where drought has caused both a need for more water and an increase in dead trees. In other regions, the device can use biomass, solar power, or battery power. This allows people all over the world to adapt its use and better access to clean water despite the climate or resources.
“One could imagine these shipping containers being positioned in a state of readiness throughout the world to be able to respond to disasters for both energy and water,” said Hertz.
The team plans on using the prize money to develop more machines and to work with nonprofits to disperse them around the world.