Making water from air wins couple $1.5 million XPrize

It started out modestly enough: David Hertz, having learned that under the right conditions you really can make your own water out of thin air, put a little contraption on the roof of his office and began cranking out free bottles of H2O for anyone who wanted one.

Soon he and his wife, Laura Doss-Hertz, were thinking bigger – so much so that this week the couple won the $1.5 million XPrize For Water Abundance. 

They prevailed by developing a system that uses shipping containers, wood chips and other detritus to produce as much as 528 gallons (2,000 liters) of water a day at a cost of no more than 2 cents a quart (1 liter).

The Skysource/Skywater Alliance co-founders David Hertz, left, and his wife Laura Doss-Hertz pose for a portrait next to the Skywater 300 Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles. The company received the $1.5 million XPrize For Water Abundance

The Skysource/Skywater Alliance co-founders David Hertz, left, and his wife Laura Doss-Hertz pose for a portrait next to the Skywater 300 Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles. The company received the $1.5 million XPrize For Water Abundance

The Skysource/Skywater Alliance co-founders David Hertz, left, and his wife Laura Doss-Hertz pose for a portrait next to the Skywater 300 Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles. The company received the $1.5 million XPrize For Water Abundance

The XPrize competition, created by a group of philanthropists, entrepreneurs and others, has awarded more than $140 million over the years for what it calls audacious futuristic ideas aimed at protecting and improving the planet. 

The first XPrize, for $10 million, went to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and aviation pioneer Burt Rutan in 2004 for SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned space flight.

So when Hertz learned a couple of years ago that a prize was about to be offered to whoever could come up with a cheap, innovative way to produce clean fresh water for a world that doesn’t have enough of it, he decided to go all in.

At the time, his little water-making machine was cranking out 150 gallons a day, much of which was being given to homeless people living in an around the alley behind the Studio of Environmental Architecture, Hertz’s Venice Beach-area firm that specializes in creating green buildings.

The couple prevailed by developing a system that uses shipping containers, wood chips and other detritus to produce as much as 528 gallons (2,000 liters) of water a day at a cost of no more than 2 cents a quart (1 liter)

The couple prevailed by developing a system that uses shipping containers, wood chips and other detritus to produce as much as 528 gallons (2,000 liters) of water a day at a cost of no more than 2 cents a quart (1 liter)

The couple prevailed by developing a system that uses shipping containers, wood chips and other detritus to produce as much as 528 gallons (2,000 liters) of water a day at a cost of no more than 2 cents a quart (1 liter)

The XPrize competition, created by a group of philanthropists, entrepreneurs and others, has awarded more than $140 million over the years for what it calls audacious futuristic ideas aimed at protecting and improving the planet

The XPrize competition, created by a group of philanthropists, entrepreneurs and others, has awarded more than $140 million over the years for what it calls audacious futuristic ideas aimed at protecting and improving the planet

The XPrize competition, created by a group of philanthropists, entrepreneurs and others, has awarded more than $140 million over the years for what it calls audacious futuristic ideas aimed at protecting and improving the planet

He and his wife, a commercial photographer, and their partner Richard Groden, who created the smaller machine, assembled The Skysource/Skywater Alliance and went to work. 

They settled on creating little rainstorms inside shipping containers by heating up wood chips to produce the temperature and humidity needed to draw water from the air and the wood itself.

‘One of the fascinating things about shipping containers is that more are imported than exported, so there’s generally a surplus,’ says Hertz, adding they’re cheap and easy to move around. 

HOW DOES IT WORK? 

The team creates little rainstorms inside shipping containers

The team creates little rainstorms inside shipping containers

The team creates little rainstorms inside shipping containers

The Skywater system relies on a patented Adiabatic Distillation Process, which reduces water vapor to liquid without a gain or loss of heat, according to the company’s website. 

It works best in higher humidity and temperature.  

‘After condensation, the water is filtered and treated with ozone to enhance its taste and prevent potentially hazardous micro-organisms from forming and the water can be used or stored for future use,’ according to SkySource.

The team uses shipping containers filled with wood chips to essentially create little rainstorms.

This produces the right conditions to draw water from the air, and the wood itself.  

The Skywater system relies on a patented Adiabatic Distillation Process, which reduces water vapor to liquid without a gain or loss of heat. This process is illustrated in the graphic above

The Skywater system relies on a patented Adiabatic Distillation Process, which reduces water vapor to liquid without a gain or loss of heat. This process is illustrated in the graphic above

The Skywater system relies on a patented Adiabatic Distillation Process, which reduces water vapor to liquid without a gain or loss of heat. This process is illustrated in the graphic above

And if you don’t have wood chips to heat them with, coconut husks, rice, walnut shells, grass clippings or just about any other such waste product will do just fine.

‘Certainly in regions where you have a lot of biomass this is going to be a very simple technology to deploy,’ said Matthew Stuber, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Connecticut and expert on water systems who was one of the panel’s judges.

He called their water-making machine a ‘really cool’ merging of rather simple technologies that can be used to quickly deliver water to regions hit by natural disasters, stricken by drought or even rural areas with a shortage of clean water.

Hertz and his wife, a commercial photographer, and their partner Richard Groden, who created the smaller machine, assembled The Skysource/Skywater Alliance and went to work

Hertz and his wife, a commercial photographer, and their partner Richard Groden, who created the smaller machine, assembled The Skysource/Skywater Alliance and went to work

Hertz and his wife, a commercial photographer, and their partner Richard Groden, who created the smaller machine, assembled The Skysource/Skywater Alliance and went to work

The XPrize trophy is seen at The Skysource/Skywater Alliance offices Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles

The XPrize trophy is seen at The Skysource/Skywater Alliance offices Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles

The XPrize trophy is seen at The Skysource/Skywater Alliance offices Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Los Angeles

Hertz and his wife are just starting to contemplate how to accomplish that.

Theirs was among 98 teams from 27 countries who entered. 

Many teams were bigger and better funded while the couple mortgaged their Malibu home to stay in the game. 

At one point, they were told they hadn’t made the final round of five but then one team that did dropped out and they were back in.

WHERE ARE FUTURE ‘WATER WARS’ MOST LIKE TO ARISE?

A team of scientists from the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) used a novel machine learning method to identify ‘pre-conditions and factors’ that might lead to depleting water resources in certain areas, particularly those that contain water sources shared by bordering nations.

Researchers said the areas most likely to be hit by ‘hydro-political’ issues are those with already stressed water basins. 

This includes the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates and Colorado rivers.

They believe water-related conflict or cooperation is likely to develop in the next 50 to 100 years as a result of climate change and population growth.

Researchers used machine learning to identify 'pre-conditions and factors' that might lead to depleting water resources, particularly areas that contain water shared by bordering nations

Researchers used machine learning to identify 'pre-conditions and factors' that might lead to depleting water resources, particularly areas that contain water shared by bordering nations

Researchers used machine learning to identify ‘pre-conditions and factors’ that might lead to depleting water resources, particularly areas that contain water shared by bordering nations

‘If you say we were the dark horse in the race, we weren’t even in the race,’ Hertz recalled with a smile. 

He stood near a giant copy of the check in his office while his wife prepared to leave for a photo shoot and a visitor sampled a glass of their freshly made water.

Now, though, they are in for the long, wet haul.

‘There’s no restrictions whatsoever on how it’s used,’ Hertz said of the prize money. ‘But Laura and I have committed to using it all for the development and deployment of these machines, to get them to people who need the water most.’

To be continued

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