Drinking water could come from thin air

Free person in washing machine in self service laundry room image, public domain CC0 photo.

Congress has passed laws restricting water use, based on the false assumption that water is scarce. For example, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act forces dishwashers, washing machines, and showerheads to use less water — resulting in clothes and dishes being less clean — even though America has lots of rivers, rainfall, and aquifers.

Even where water actually is scarce, the supply can be expanded without giving up the benefits of modern civilization, like a washing machine that uses enough water to get your clothes clean.

There are all kinds of ways to get more water, such as the desalinization used in places like Malta, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, and floating desalination machines that use no electricity.

Now, there is a new way to collect water:

Cody Friesen, an associate professor of materials science at Arizona State University, has developed a solar-powered hydropanel that can absorb water vapor at high volumes when exposed to sunlight.  It is a modern-day twist on an approach been used for centuries to pull water from the atmosphere, such as using trees or nets to “catch” fog in Peru, a practice that dates back to the 1500s and is still being used today….Friesen founded his own company Zero Mass Water in 2014 following his research on solar-powered hydropanels. Today the company is called Source Global, operates in more than 50 countries and has a private valuation of more than $1bn (£800m).

The panels work by using sunlight to power fans that pull air into the device, which contains a desiccant material which absorbs and traps moisture. The water molecules accumulate and are emitted as water vapor as the solar energy raises the temperature of the panel to create a high-humidity gas. This then condenses into a liquid before minerals are added to make it drinkable.

“That’s how we’re able to create water in most places in the world, even when it’s very dry,” says Friesen. “We’re headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, which is sub-5% relative humidity in the summer and we’re still making water. It’s a uniquely efficient and low-cost approach that enables us to go places where nobody else can go.”

The air, even in relatively dry climates, can hold a surprising amount of water. The Earth’s atmosphere as a whole contains about six times as much water as the planet’s rivers.

Friesen’s goal is to expand access to water for people with few options, such as rural communities that don’t have electricity, and regions afflicted by natural disasters. Among Source’s customers is a school in Africa where students once had to trek for hours a day to find fresh water. A panel costs about $2,000 and lasts at least 15 years. But advances in artificial intelligence have boosted yields, able to monitor changing conditions, humidity, temperatures, and sunlight to extract the maximum amount of water, says Adam Sharkawy of Material Impact, an investor in Source Global. “These panels are constructed to create four to five liters of drink per panel per day. But with AI and machine learning algorithms, these numbers can go much higher, maybe aspiring towards seven, eight, nine. That makes it even more effective and more cost efficient.”

Water’s perceived scarcity has led to stupid federal regulations. Dishwashers and washing machines take much longer to run than they used to, and get clothes and dishes less clean, due to federal regulations that make washing machines use ridiculously little water, too little water to get many clothes and some dishes clean. As a result, some people run their washing machine or dishwasher multiple times rather than just once, increasing energy use. A a recent study in England suggests that people compensate for showerheads that emit less water by taking longer showers, rather than reducing overall water use. The Trump administration attempted to roll back these regulations to the extent that they were counterproductive and actually increased energy use. But the Biden administration undid the Trump administration’s steps toward fixing this situation.

As the Competitive Enterprise Institute explains:

Decades ago, consumers enjoyed a one-hour wait for a clean load of dishes. Today, you wait more than two and a half hours, and likely often find dishes that need rewashing. Still the Biden administration insists on mandating appliances that use less energy and water, restricting manufacturers from making more efficient options. In 2022, the Department of Energy (DOE) tightened the existing rule, further pushing painfully slow and inefficient dishwashers into the market.

However, in Louisiana v. US Department of Energy, the Court of Appeals invalidated the DOE’s rule. The court found that, instead of leading to ecological gains, the rule forces more rewashing, prewashing, and handwashing, thus more energy and water usage that nullifies the purpose of the regulation….This victory stems from CEI’s presence at the frontlines for home appliance deregulation. In March 2018, CEI petitioned the DOE to consider new standards for dishwashers with cycles of one hour or less. The government granted our petition and adopted our proposed standards in 2020. However, President Biden reversed the measure through executive order on his first day in office. Biden’s DOE then reinstated and tightened previous regulations. Several states sued….Now, the agency must either restart the process to promulgate a rule allowing one-hour dishwashers or at least come up with a more convincing rationale for not doing so….Effects of this court decision may ripple into clothes washers and dryers, which have struggled with decreased efficiency thanks to similar restrictions. Moreover, the court found that the regulators had taken such an expansive view of their own authority that the DOE may have been improperly regulating consumer appliances beyond dishwashers for decades.

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