By Peter Kelly-Detwiler | Storyteller in Residence
Last week on vacation with the family in Puerto Rico, I took a small detour from the touristy stuff to check out a cool new technology. Driving just over an hour west of San Juan, I headed south, and soon found myself passing through an intensely green forested and serrated landscape of karst limestone outcroppings. I followed the winding road about a half hour south to the town of Utuado, home of 33,000 souls and one of the communities most seriously affected by hurricane Maria. After asking directions three times (my destination was not on Google Maps), I eventually found my way to the Utuado Estacion de los Bomberos – the local fire station.
There I introduce myself to the officer in charge (he was perhaps a bit confused as to what TREIA’s storyteller in residence actually does) and asked permission to accompany him to the roof. We climbed a vertical ladder set into the wall, opened a hatch, and walked over to view a secondary lower rooftop.
Truth be told, there wasn’t actually that much to see: five boxes about a meter square, appearing very similar to solar pv panels, sat on the rooftop, joined together by a network of garden sized hoses. But although not visually arresting, there was something rather profound taking place. These five box-like technologies were harvesting the power of the sun to draw water directly from the surrounding air.
I climbed back down the ladder and we migrated into the fire station’s kitchen. There, I filled up a cup from the designated tap - with a “Zero Mass Water” label on it - and took a sip. Clean tap water. It was refreshing in the heat and tasted good, but far more importantly, it represented a critical source of resilience to the community of Utuado. The next time there is an incident such as Maria, these firemen will have critically needed drinking water, allowing them to remain at their post and stand watch.
Zero Mass Water: Tackling One of the Biggest Challenges on the Planet
Two days after my brief visit, I was on the phone with Kaitlyn Fitzgerald - Head of Marketing and Communications for Zero Mass Water – who provided context for my recent experience.
Zero Mass Water (a new TREIA member) deploys sophisticated technology that uses the energy of the sun to extract drinking water from the air. During our conversation, Fitzgerald outlined the genesis of the company.
Some years ago, CEO Dr. Cody Friesen - an MIT Ph.D. in materials science, and engineer by training - took a job as a professor at Arizona State University. Part of his role there is to take research from universities and help turn it into real and commercially viable solutions to solve some of the world’s pressing problems. Friesen created a team, and one of the initial problems addressed was the growing global scarcity of potable water, a problem that has largely to do with contamination. Water may exist in abundance around the planet, but much of it is not clean enough to drink.
As Fitzgerald put it, “how do we create a solution to the most acute problem in the world, which is water stress?” After studying the problem, the team determined that any viable solution needed to bypass the existing infrastructure and focus on transforming humanity’s relationship to water. Their ultimate goal was to create access to water anywhere on the planet.
Zero Mass Water was founded in 2014 to address that challenge. The company combines solar PV and solar thermal technologies to extract water vapor from the ambient humidity in the air. The Hydropanel (called SOURCE) creates an environment inside that is 20,000 times more humid than outside. The dewpoint inside the SOURCE is elevated so that water condenses through a hygroscopic material where only water molecules are attracted. The resulting water is so pure that the company actually has to add magnesium and calcium back into the mix. As Fitzgerald noted “Providing minerals to the water is an important piece of what we do. The team looked at the best tasting waters in world to rival the taste and mouth feel.”
Fitzgerald indicated that each standard SOURCE array yields on the order of six to ten liters of water per day – about the same amount as a case of bottled water - depending on ambient humidity and available sunlight.
She sees growing markets in not only the developing world, but also in many areas of this country where we have allowed our public water infrastructure to decay (think Flint, Michigan). In many cases, we don’t trust our public water systems and have turned to bottled water instead, which is an environmental disaster both as a result of single-use bottles and the energy used to transport the water (Fitzgerald estimated that energy to represent about 2% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions).
While there are upfront costs to purchase the SOURCE (these can also be financed through a third-party company called Lightstream), the average cost of water over the estimated fifteen-year life of the system is about $.15 per liter, compared to bottled water at over three times that amount.
The TREIA Connection
I was first introduced to Fitzgerald and her company at TREIA and was curious why a company with a global profile (to date, it has installations in 17 different countries, with business partners on five continents) would become a member. Fitzgerald indicated that Zero Mass Water sees Texas, a sunny state with a lot of water-related needs, as a great market for its product. She made the point that even as the GridNEXT event was taking place in October, the City of Austin had issued a boil water advisory as a result of recent local flooding.
The company is already collaborating with fellow TREIA member Francis Solar to promote the technology. It also has panels installed at the Whisper Valley housing development outside of Austin. In fact, during the boil water advisory, four SOURCE Hydropanels in Whisper Valley’s discovery center provide water to members in the development (residences can now purchase installations for their own homes).
Fitzgerald appreciates the opportunities for connection with the TREIA community, and the quality of conversations that occurred at GridNEXT. “What was incredible was being able to see how the utilities and stakeholders are all thinking and preparing for the future in whatever way that may be.” She commented that the event helped the attendees from Zero Mass Water, “understand how we can fit into existing and new infrastructure, and advance efforts like what you see in Austin and San Antonio. It’s a real pleasure to be able to learn from all stakeholders in the incredible community.”
Peering into the future, Zero Mass Water sees a nearly limitless market, given the enormous need both here and abroad. As far as water goes, whether in the United States or overseas, it’s becoming increasingly important to secure sources of clean drinking water. Fitzgerald summed it up, “It’s common sense. And you will benefit from this on a daily basis. It’s not going to become a choice to become more resilient.”