Sustainability Infrastructure

Engineer discovers how to extract water from air and sunlight

a photo of Zero Mass Water hydropanels in Timor-Leste
Courtesy of Zero Mass Water

Story at a glance

  • Engineer and entrepreneur Cody Friesen invented hydropanels that extract water with air and sunlight. Think solar panels, but for water.

“When you have sugar in a bowl, that sugar gets a little clumpy over time,” says Cody Friesen. “Have you ever thought about why?”

Friesen, who teaches materials science at Arizona State University, explains that the sugar absorbs moisture from the air around it. “The science term for that is the sugar is hygroscopic,” he says. “Those materials want to come to equilibrium with the moisture in the atmosphere.”

Now imagine a structure, Friesen says, like a solar panel with the same property as hygroscopic sugar, but it absorbs moisture more quickly and is exposed to sunlight. This would allow water vapor to concentrate in a sterile reservoir inside the panel.

The inside of the hydropanel, which produces water like solar panels generate electricity, is similar to condensation on a bathroom mirror after a shower.

“How do we develop a technology for water that’s the parallel to what solar did for electricity? When we say renewable energy, we almost exclusively mean renewable electricity,” Friesen says, “but in a future context, hopefully that was just the first win and that renewable energy really corresponds to renewable resources.”

Clumpy sugar is how Friesen explained the concept of hydropanels, but the technology is no longer just a concept. Friesen’s company Source (formerly Zero Mass Water) has brought the water-producing technology to schools, hospitals, refugee camps, homes and hotels in more than 30 countries around the world. 

Aiding a crisis

Jordan is one of the driest countries in the world, and the arrival of Syrian refugees, fleeing conflict in their home country and numbering in the hundreds of thousands, put additional pressure on Jordan’s already strained resources. 

In Jordan and Lebanon, Source partnered with the United States Agency for International Development to deploy 126 hydropanels across 12 sites so that refugees could access clean water without disposable water bottles, with only sunlight and air needed to replenish the supply. 

“You think about water stress not just at the place where the climate change is happening or where the disruption is, but where people go when they are displaced,” Friesen says.

Climate change can make water scarcity worse because of declines in water quantity and quality. And climate change’s stress on natural resources can lead to even more political conflict, according to the United Nations. 

Water can be weaponized, too. 

When Somalia faced droughts in 2011 linked to climate change, the jihadist fundamentalist group al-Shabaab “changed its traditional guerilla tactics and started to cut off liberated cities from their water sources so that they could demonstrate at least some kind of power and presence,” a report from the Center for Climate and Security notes.

Alex Mung, World Economic Forum’s head of water and environmental resilience, explains that “human migration and cross-border movement in search of more abundant water resources” lead to an “additional demand for water,” which “puts people in competition with each other, and can trigger tension and conflict.”

“Water underpins all aspects of the economy,” Mung says. “With climate change, we can expect more frequent and more intense weather-related events putting additional stress and uncertainty on water resources.”

Making clean water accessible for more people

In Massachusetts, Woods Hole Research Center, a scientific research organization focused on climate change, installed four hydropanels about six months ago. Max Holmes, deputy director and senior scientist at the center, says that the process of distributing water requires a lot of energy usage, including bottled and tap water.

“Given our focus on climate change, we try to walk the walk,” says Holmes. “We think really hard about our energy use.” He says that the center uses the Source system for their drinking water, but it also helps them “tell our story about what’s important to us and ways to reduce energy consumption.”

Each hydropanel costs about $2,000 and produces about 90 to 150 liters (up to 300 bottles of water) per month. Unlike solar panels, which require sunlight, the hydropanels can make water even with cloud cover, but sunlight increases the output. In temperatures below freezing, the panels don’t produce water. 

Installations of hydropanels can be composed of just two panels going up to thousands. 

In September, Friesen was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention. Now, he’s using the $500,000 prize money to partner with Conservation International to set up enough arrays of hydropanels to supply clean water for every member of the indigenous Wayuu community in Bahia Hondita, Colombia. 

Friesen lays out the stakes of increasing access to clean water: “If you’ve ever been on a hike and ran out of water when you still have 10 miles to go or if you’ve been traveling and the water made you sick.” As he puts it, “It becomes real very quickly.”

Mung says that no one person can solve the pervasive problem of water scarcity alone, and he would like to see an environment where more entrepreneurs tackle issues like access to safe and clean water. 

“Partnerships are the foundation of what’s needed, and the technology can support them,” he says. “How we encourage and support entrepreneurs to emerge and see multiples of these solutions for the water agenda is critical.”