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Clean water from humid air

  • Atmospheric Water Solutions Executive Vice President Reid Goldstein fills a bottle of purified water from an commercial AquaBoy system at their Cooper City warehouse. (Taimy Alvarez/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

  • The AquaBoyAE Pro II uses a 7-stage EZ-Filter process to convert humidity in the air into "purified great tasting water" made from the air. First, air is drawn in through the HEPA air filter, prohibiting micro particles and dust from entering the appliance. The warm water vapor then makes contact with the cooled stainless steel coils and is condensed into liquid water. This water is collected in a lower tank, where a UV lamp eliminates bacteria and microorganisms. The next four phases of the process eliminate any minute particles and polish the water prior to entering the upper tank, which is also fitted with another UV lamp. Finally, the water is separated into two tanks. One tank heats the water and the other chills the water. (Taimy Alvarez/Sun Sentinel/TNS)



Sun Sentinel
Saturday, June 22, 2019

It’s a devil’s pact: The gleaming rays of sunshine this time of year come hand-in-hand with body-drenching humidity. But what if that humidity could serve as a commodity for our current and future water needs in South Florida and beyond? What if clean water could be created ... right out of thick air?

A niche industry has emerged in recent years to do just this, and a small Cooper City, Fla., company, with access to all the suffocating humidity they could ever want, is a key player.

Atmospheric Water Solutions or AWS, sits in a very unassuming office park, but since 2012 they have been tinkering with a very remarkable product. They dub it the AquaBoy Pro. Now in its second generation (the AquaBoy Pro II), it is one of the only atmospheric water generators available to the everyday buyer on the market in places such as Target or Home Depot.

Atmospheric water generator sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. But Reid Goldstein, the executive vice president of AWS who took over in 2015, said the basic technology traces back to the development of air conditioners and dehumidifiers. “It’s essentially dehumidification technology with modern science thrown in.”

The device’s sleek exterior resembles a water cooler without the cooler and costs upward of $1,665.

It functions by drawing in air from the outside. In places with high humidity, that air brings plenty of water vapor along with it.

The warm vapor makes contact with cooled stainless steel coils inside, and, similar to that inconvenient water that drips from your air conditioning unit, condensation is created. The water is collected and cycled through seven layers of high-grade filtering until it comes out the tap in EPA-certified, clean drinking water.

Just like that water cooler at work, the household version of the device can create about five gallons of drinking water a day.

The amount depends on the humidity in the air, and where the device is located. Put in your garage or somewhere outside and you’ll get more. Stick it in your kitchen with the air conditioner going and it will make slightly less. According to Goldstein, the device requires anywhere from 28% to 95% humidity, and temperatures between 55 degrees and 110 degrees to function.

You can see why somewhere like South Florida is ideal.

About three quarters of the 1,000 units sold so far have gone to homes and offices here or in similarly humid areas around the country, as well as global locales known for their stifling air like Qatar, Puerto Rico, Honduras and the Bahamas.

The other portion of sales have come from bigger devices the company is continuing to tinker with, which can make anywhere from 30 to 3,000 gallons of clean water a day and have the potential to service far more dire global needs.

Juan Sebastian Chaquea is a global project manager at AWS. His previous title was project manager at FEMA, where he dealt with the management of homes, shelters and transitional housing during disasters. “In emergency management, the first things you have to cover are food, shelter and water. But all of those things are useless if you don’t have water,” he said.

Chaquea’s previous job taught him about the logistical challenges of transporting bottled water. It is heavy, which makes it costly to ship. It also requires bodies to move and transport once it arrives to a disaster area, which tends to leave people in harder-to-reach areas without access for days. It also easily contaminates when left in the sun for too long.

Chaquea joined AWS this year because he believes the development of atmospheric water generator technology could help solve those issues — and ultimately save lives. “Being able to bring water to people allows them to have the number one thing they need for survival,” he said.

AWS believes products like theirs, which requires zero groundwater to function, are perfect to reduce day-to-day needs, such as drinking water or filling up your coffee machine.

However, their leaders have a vision of expanding business for needs such as growing agriculture, servicing kidney dialysis machines, and providing drinking water to hospitals — some of which they already do. They are currently developing a mobile unit that can create 1,500 gallons of water a day, which they say could serve construction sites, emergency relief and remote areas.

“Even though everyone knows you need water to live, it is a much wider spread and much more used commodity than what meets the eye,” said Goldstein.

This vision is exciting to others involved in the space, such as Sameer Rao, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah.

In 2017, Rao was a post doc at MIT. He published a paper with colleagues suggesting they could create an atmospheric water generator that could be used in any location, regardless of humidity levels.

And, unlike the AquaBoy, it would not require electricity or complicated moving parts — only sunlight. The paper created a buzz in the scientific community as the concept was seen as a potential solution to severe water shortages affecting arid regions around the globe that are only expected to become worse as the climate continues to heat up and populations continue to grow.

In 2018, Rao and his team turned heads again when they created a prototype for their concept that was able to make water from a rooftop in Tempe, Ariz., with close to zero humidity.

According to Rao’s research, there are trillions of liters of water in the form of vapor in the air. However, current methods for extracting that water, such as AWS’s technology, can’t yet serve the arid regions that often need them most.

Even those areas in humid regions are not a given, since products like the AquaBoy Pro II require costly energy to use — something the company hopes to decrease as they continue to refine their technology and look for alternative energy sources.

But Rao is happy that products like the AquaBoy exist on the market. He noted that AWS is one of a handful of companies around the country working with this “nascent technology,” and he welcomes more.

“The universities are great at developing technology, but we need companies to realize it and make the products,” Rao said.