Water, Water Everywhere

Stephen DeAngelis

October 17, 2006

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been at the heart of a lot of marvelous developments including the Internet. One of the more interesting projects to have born fruit recently is a machine that can produce water “out of thin air” in almost any environment. The breakthrough was reported on in an article by Audrey Hudson in Wired [“Making Water from Thin Air,” 06 Oct 2006].

The water-harvesting technology was originally the brainchild of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which sought ways to ensure sustainable water supplies for U.S. combat troops deployed in arid regions like Iraq. “The program focused on creating water from the atmosphere using low-energy systems that could reduce the overall logistics burden for deployed forces and provide potable water within the reach of the war fighter any place, any time,” said Darpa spokeswoman Jan Walker.

The importance of this kind of technology for other purposes than supporting military troops should be obvious. There have been predictions, for example, that much of the world is destined to face severe water shortages [“Extreme Droughts Will Spread, Warn Forecasters,” by Ian Sample, The Guardian, 4 October 2006].

Nearly a third of the world’s land surface may be at risk of extreme drought by the end of the century, wreaking havoc on farmland and water resources and leading to mass migrations of “environmental refugees”, climate experts warned yesterday. Predictions based on historical trends in rainfall and surface temperatures dating back to the 1950s reveal that regions blighted by moderate droughts are set to double by the end of the century, with tentative data suggesting areas struck by extreme droughts may soar from 1% today to 30% in 2100.

Other reports indicate that India “is running through its groundwater so fast that scarcity could threaten whole regions, drive people off the land and ultimately stunt the country’s ability to farm and feed its people.” [“India Digs Deeper, but Wells Are Drying Up, and a Farming Crisis Looms,” by Somini Sengupta, New York Times, 30 Sep 2006]. And as I noted in a previous post, Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, believes that nearly 80 percent of the diseases that plague Gap states could be wiped out if clean water were available. While this technology isn’t the answer to all water problems, it certainly should be a boon to some areas. Sengupta reports that one Indian entrepreneur, once a cultivator of cucumbers and wheat, now drills deeper and deeper to find and sell water.

His well now reaches 130 feet down. Four times a day he starts up his electric pumps. The water that gurgles up, he sells to the local government — 13,000 gallons a day. What is left, he sells to thirsty neighbors. He reaps handsomely, and he plans to continue for as long as it lasts. ”However long it runs, it runs,” he said. ”We know we will all be ultimately doomed.”

Aqua Sciences, the company that built the water producing machine, only discusses the very basics about how its machine works.

“People have been trying to figure out how to do this for years, and we just came out of left field in response to Darpa,” said Abe Sher, chief executive officer of Aqua Sciences. “The atmosphere is a river full of water, even in the desert. It won’t work absolutely everywhere, but it works virtually everywhere.” Sher said he is “not at liberty” to disclose details of the government contracts, except that Aqua Sciences won two highly competitive bids with “some very sophisticated companies.” He also declined to comment on how the technology actually works. “This is our secret sauce,” Sher said. “Like Kentucky Fried Chicken, it tastes good, but we won’t tell you what’s in it.” He did, however, provide a hint: Think of rice used in saltshakers that acts as a magnet to extract water and keeps salt from clumping. “We figured out how to tap it in a very unique and proprietary way,” Sher said. “We figured out how to mimic nature, using natural salt to extract water and act as a natural decontamination. “Think of the Dead Sea, where nothing grows around it because the salt dehydrates everything. It’s kind of like that.” The 20-foot machine can churn out 600 gallons of water a day without using or producing toxic materials and byproducts. The machine was displayed on Capitol Hill last week where a half-dozen lawmakers and some staffers stopped by for a drink. “It was very interesting to see the technology in action and learn about its possible implementation in natural disasters,” said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Republican from Florida whose hurricane-prone district includes Fort Lauderdale. “It was delicious,” Shaw said.

Hudson’s article didn’t indicate exactly how much the machines cost to buy or operate, but initial indications are that it is quite reasonable.

“It seems like it’s a cheaper alternative to trucking in bottled water, which has a shelf life,” said Rowe, who described himself as a fiscal hawk. Once deployed, the machines could reduce the cost of logistical support for supplying water to the troops in Iraq by billions of dollars, said Stuart Roy, spokesman of the DCI Group, Aqua Sciences’ public affairs firm. The cost to transport water by C-17 cargo planes, then truck it to the troops, runs $30 a gallon. The cost, including the machines from Aqua Sciences, will be reduced to 30 cents a gallon, Roy said. Several systems on the market can create water through condensation, but the process requires a high level of humidity. Aqua Sciences’ machines only require 14 percent humidity, Roy said. “That’s why this technology is superior and why they are getting the contracts.”

Aqua Sciences should investigate the possibilities of establishing a network of entrepreneurs in Gap countries who could make money and improve the lives of their fellow citizens by selling water made by their machines. I suspect they could even partner with the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations in this effort. This kind of technology also has a place in a Development-in-a-Box™ approach since it can be used in such varied environments. I suspect we’ll be hearing more from Aqua Sciences in the future.