By Keridwen Cornelius
Innovative solar panels provide drinking water to everyone from Scottsdale to Syria.
The future of our natural resources is looking up – literally. While we and our ancestors have sought water and fuel in the ground, generations to come may turn their attentions to the sky. It’s happening already at Scottsdale’s Zero Mass Water, which uses solar panels to conjure energy and drinking water out of thin air.
“There is more water vapor in the atmosphere than there is fresh water on Earth,” says founder and CEO Cody Friesen. To deliquesce it into your drinking glass, Friesen invented Source, a solar panel equipped with a proprietary “nanostructured, hierarchically porous” material (that’s science-speak for “really small holes of different sizes”). It extracts H2O from the air the same way rice absorbs moisture in a saltshaker or from your cellphone after you accidentally drop it into the toilet.
The panels condense and purify the vapor, then season it with calcium and magnesium so it has the same nutrition and taste profile as luxury bottled water. About five liters a day is piped to your refrigerator or former filter tap.
Unlike electricity-generating solar panels, Source panels turn sunlight into heat, which fuels the process. If they used traditional solar technology, “you would need a footprint that is four to five times bigger than our footprint to generate the same amount of power… We think [it’s] world record-setting solar-thermal technology,” explains Friesen, who also launched Fluidic Energy, a rechargeable zinc-air battery company in north Scottsdale.
Zero Mass Water began selling Source to American homeowners in early 2017. The technology offers Scottsdale residents bottle-quality water without all the problems of plastic bottles: giant fossil fuel footprints from extracting petroleum, manufacturing it into plastic, transporting the bottles worldwide and non-biodegradable waste piling up in landfills and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The panels – and their owners – also help the planet in another way. On top of the panel price, purchasers make at least one 10 percent payment toward helping someone in the developing world purchase Source at a significantly reduced rate. “We call this concept water democratized,” Friesen says. “We want to democratize water for everyone, everywhere.”
Making safe drinking water available worldwide is critical. Every day, 800 young children die from water- and sanitation-related diseases and 844 million people lack a basic, safe drinking water service, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Families from Ecuador to Equatorial Guinea must walk long distances to obtain dubious or diseased water. Africans alone spend 40 billion hours a year fetching water, according to the United Nations. Areas with insufficient water infrastructure (like Mexico or Native American reservations) or brackish municipal water (like parts of the Middle East) must buy bottled water – increasing household expenses, traffic and pollution from delivery trucks, and waste.
Zero Mass Water’s off-the-grid panels, which can be installed in a little over a hour, are one solution to these problems. The company has placed panels at homes and a clinic in Ecuador, villas in Dubai and offices and schools in Mexico. Recently, they received a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide panels for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. They’re also partnering with the Asian Development Bank to install Source in the Philippines.
The impact has already been positive, Friesen says. Thanks to the panels in Mexican schools, children are no longer suffering from upset stomachs that distract them from learning, and teachers don’t have to spend their modest incomes buying bottled water for their students. Stories like that – along with the chance to transform the lives of millions who lack drinking water – are, Friesen says, “probably one of the biggest things that gets me out of bed in the morning.”