Off-grid water maker Source Global harvests humidity as climate change strains traditional sources
An Arizona professor’s invention is tapping the endless oasis hidden in the sky to deliver fresh, clean water where it’s needed most — in homes and businesses where traditional sources are growing scarce.
Called a hydropanel, the device powered only by sunlight provides access to water fit for human consumption even as Earth-bound supplies are strained by a burgeoning population and a warming planet.
“I don’t think about ‘climate change’ as much as I think about the fact that human behavior has changed our climate,” inventor Cody Friesen, Arizona State University associate professor of materials science and engineering, and founder and CEO of Source Global, told Climate & Capital Media. “Climate change is well underway. Humanity must innovate in order to adapt to the climate we are living in today and become resilient to the climate to come.”
Water scarcity growing
“Water scarcity is the canary in the cage of climate change,” Paul Walker, Arizona-based public utility consultant, told Climate & Capital Media.
Water covers 71% of the Earth, but most of it is in the ocean. Less than 1% of it is accessible fresh water fit for human consumption, bathing and growing crops, the WWF, United Nations and others report. Approximately 2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water.
It’s getting worse as temperatures rise globally.
Warmer air can hold more water than cool air. That air will suck up more water from oceans, lakes, soil and plants, leaving drier conditions on the ground and shrinking fresh water supplies.
In a climate changing world, wet areas will be wetter and dry areas drier, scientists predict. Decreasing rain will strain fresh water resources in the American West, Southwest, and Southeast, southern Australia, North Africa and the Middle East.
Women around the world spend a combined 200 million hours collecting water every day.
The average American household uses about 300 gallons (almost 1,136 liters) a day, the EPA estimates. That’s about 70 percent for drinking, showers, toilets and washing clothes; and 30 percent landscaping. This despite the fact that more than 2 million Americans lack access to running water, indoor plumbing, or wastewater services, according to an estimate by the US Water Alliance.
Friesen also pointed out water.org’s finding that women around the world spend a combined 200 million hours collecting water every day.
“When people aren’t fetching water, they have time for other important pursuits,” Friesen said. “The literal vision of Source Global is to ‘perfect water for every person, in every place.’”
Friesen grew up in Arizona’s searing Sonoran Desert, which can see summer highs of 118 degrees F (47.8 C), near cotton fields and citrus orchards fed by irrigation canals Native Americans built thousands of years ago, ASU News said in a profile of the inventor. He traveled extensively. In Southeast Asia and Central America he noticed the juxtaposition of abundant rainfall yet a lack of clean drinking water, according to his official bio.
Friesen, who earned his doctorate in materials science in 2004 at MIT, received the 2022 $150,000 McNulty Prize for innovation and the 2019 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention. He donated the Lemelson prize for a project with Conservation International to provide hydropanels to the Bahía Hondita community in Colombia.
Tapping nature’s processes
Nature has been making water out of thin air for billions of years, which we see as morning dew or frost on blades of grass or car windshields, depending on the dew point, temperature and humidity. You may also notice water droplets forming on icy cold glasses or beverage cans. In 1902, Willis Carrier, the father of the air conditioner, invented the first dehumidifier which drew moisture from the air to keep a printing plant dry.
Friesen built on the concepts with hydropanels, which use solar power, and use patented inventions and trade secrets to collect water safe for drinking. Source hydropanels — which began manufacturing in 2014 — use the solar energy to power fans that draw air through debris-blocking filters and push it through water-absorbing material that holds only pure vapor, not pollutants.
“This process of passive condensation turns water vapor into drinking water that’s mineralized for taste and kept clean in a storage tank until it’s needed,” Friesen said.
Each 340-pound hydropanel is 2.4 meters (nearly 8 feet) long, 1.2 meters wide x 1.13 meters tall when mounted at 45 degrees, Source says.
[P]assive condensation turns water vapor into drinking water that’s mineralized for taste and kept clean in a storage tank until it’s needed.
A wireless transmitter on each allows the Source network operations center to remotely monitor and help resolve issues with the hydropanels.
Each panel will produce on average around 5 liters a day, depending on temperature and humidity levels. Panels can be connected in arrays to create water farms.
They are not recommended for areas with prolonged freezes, and Source cautions they may underperform in severely cloudy conditions.
Don’t worry about the atmosphere running dry, Source says, estimating it would take 70,000 hydropanels per person on earth to affect the amount of moisture in the air.
While the sun powers Source Global’s hydropanels, other companies making atmospheric water generators, such as Israel-based WaterGen, California-based Skywell and startup Spout, and Australia-based Vesi Water, need to tap an electric power source. Renewable energy, though, is behind some desalination ventures, including Dutch firm Desolenator using solar panels in Dubai and Canadian start-up Oneka Technologies depending on wave power.
How they’re funded
In July 2022, Source announced $130 million in Series D funding co-led by funds managed by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Drawdown Fund.
“To date, we’ve raised $270 million,” Friesen said.
The company earlier raised funds from investors including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, BlackRock, Duke Energy and the Lightsmith Group, CNBC reported.
“The funds have allowed us to continue to scale, innovate and provide high-quality drinking water wherever we are on the planet,” Friesen said.
In March 2023, Source Global acquired Proud Source Water. Hydropanels going up at Proud Source’s two bottling plants will provide water for bottling in “infinitely recyclable” packaging, the company said in an announcement.
Source Global, formerly called Zero Mass Water, is a public benefit corporation (PBC), meaning it can pursue profit but must keep social and environmental goals at heart. As part of its PBC charter, Source commits to developing technology specifically built for social equity, with a focus on solving one of humanity’s greatest challenges: ensuring people in all geographies and of any economic status have access to high-quality drinking water.
“We are doing this independent of the environmental conditions, the existence of a liquid water source, the pollution conditions of the surrounding area, or the existence of viable infrastructure, Friesen said. “The challenges with drinking water will only be solved by a distributed approach that requires no customization and we have achieved just that in the hydropanel.”
From Navajo country to Australia’s outback
When Source Global distributed hydropanels to the Navajo Nation in Arizona and a “colonia” called Hueco Tanks in Texas, critics threw cold water on the concept as being too costly, around $2,000 to $3,000 per panel, for too little water.
But Friesen has persevered. He and his team continue to improve the panels and expand deployment.
The great promise of the hydropanels is that they can operate off the grid, need no government infrastructure, and can be located where communities need them.
“We have thousands of hydropanels deployed across 52 countries,” Friesen said. “When we deliver a project, we make abundant what was scarce, we make unlimited water where there was only water stress, and we fundamentally improve people’s lives.”
Deployments fulfill a wide range of solutions and are paid for in a variety of ways. Source partners with community leaders, governments and NGOs.
When we deliver a project, we make abundant what was scarce, we make unlimited water where there was only water stress, and we fundamentally improve people’s lives
“Because Source hydropanels create drinking water using only energy from the sun and the air we breathe, they’re ideal for rural remote locations like Navajo Nation in the United States, South Africa’s Eastern Cape or on the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras,” Friesen said.
A few recent examples of hydropanel deployments:
Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation supported the installation of 400 Source hydropanels in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where one in five people lack access to a reliable water source. In Lujazu, about 530 miles (852 km) southeast of Johannesburg, residents say well water is salty and dirty, and nearby river water safety is inconsistent. They only get fresh water when it rains, which is rare. Foundation chairman, Patrick Soon-Shiong, a surgeon, medical scientist and billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times, grew up in Gqeberha, south of Lujazu, and left South Africa in 1977. “This was a quasi homecoming,” he says in a Source video.
In Australia, the driest inhabited continent on earth, Source recently partnered with the Australian Water Association to raise money for hydropanels at schools in remote communities that are short of safe drinking water. American professional basketball player Patty Mills partnered with Source to place 25 hydropanels in seven indigenous communities throughout Australia (and one cultural landmark on the Hawaiian island of Oahu) helping over 4,000 people access water. Working with local communities, Source installed 1,250 hydropanels on homes in western New South Wales and trained indigenous land council members to become advocates and subcontractors. Fifteen hydropanels in Valkyrie State School in Central Queensland provide drinking water where taps ran dry six years earlier and the school had relied on plastic water bottle deliveries.
In Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, leaders will set up 300 hydropanels as water farms serving 71 families in five communities that have relied on imported drinking water and declining rainwater, Source announced. Water will be sold to the Kwajalein Atoll Development Authority, and the hydropanels will be built, operated, and maintained by Source at no cost to the authority, according to a United Nations report.
In a commercial application, the 18,800-plus bed Renaissance Village Duqm residential center for foreign workers in Oman will serve Source water in reusable glass bottles. “We are contributing to reducing single-use plastic, preserving groundwater, and reducing CO2 emissions by using a sustainable and renewable approach to drinking water,” said Renaissance CEO Stephen R. Thomas.
In California’s drought-stricken southern Central Valley, one2one USA Foundation arranged donor funding for the installation of two hydropanels each at 1,000 homes coping with contaminated water or dried wells. Source says the hydropanels can produce 1.5 million liters (nearly 400,000 gallons) of water a year while avoiding use of 3 million single-use plastic water bottles.
In Oregon, one2one, donors and the Confederation of Warm Springs, Oregon, tribes spurred installation of hydropanels to provide drinking water for the entire community.
In the U.S. Southwest, Local First Arizona is using a $7.5 million state grant to team with Source to install 800 hydropanels across the state’s remote areas.
Now you can order hydropanels for your own home. Source is taking orders for individual home kits, starting at $2,950 for a single panel producing up to 3 liters (0.8 gallons) a day, and shipping in 2024.
“We’re narrowing the drinking water accessibility gap and democratizing water wherever we go,” Friesen said. “After all, access to safe, clean drinking water is a fundamental human right.”
Featured photo: Source hydropanels in Navajo Nation. Credit: Source