Fighting Drought: Innovative Technology Turns Air into Water

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Fighting Drought: Innovative Technology Turns Air into Water

When a severe drought hit the Indian city KozhikodeAlso known as Calicut, residents, including students Swapnil Srivastav, they had access to a certain amount of water each day. “We were rationing two buckets of water a day, which we collected from water tanks,” Srivastav says. “It is a very humid region; “it is insurmountable.”

While water supply problems are not uncommon in parts of India, the experience inspired Srivastava to explore innovative solutions to water scarcity.

Inspired by “Star Wars” technology where a device turns air into water, he thought, “Why don’t we try that?” What started as a passion project led to the creation of a startup called Urav Labs in Bangalore in 2019, along with Govinda Balaji and Venkatesh Raja.

Their system converts air into water using atmospheric water generators, which contain a liquid desiccant that absorbs moisture from the air. Using sunlight or renewable electricity, they heat the desiccant to 65°C, releasing moisture that condenses into potable water. The entire process takes about 12 hours, Srivastav says. Today, each unit produces around 2,000 liters of drinking water.

While Uravu Labs’ initial vision was to provide clean water to water-scarce communities, financial realities led them to shift focus. “We realized that the technology needed more time to develop and bring down its costs,” Srivastav explains. Without the necessary financing in India, the company decided to sell water to 40 customers in the hospitality industry, who use it to supply drinking water to their customers.

“We tried CSR departments and non-profits, but many companies avoided the technology. We had to go for commercial consumer applications because they were willing to pay us and it was an element of sustainability for them,” says Srivastav.

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Water scarcity is not new, but many countries, particularly in the Global South, are experiencing severe droughts and climate change-related floods that are contaminating water resources. More than 50% of the world’s population (4 billion people) experiences water scarcity at least once a month, while by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions with “absolute” water scarcity, according to Food and Agriculture. Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Could atmospheric water generation technology be the answer? Thanks to its energy efficiency, since it can run on renewable sources, it is a way to provide a new source of water without the need for traditional water infrastructure, making it an attractive option in remote locations.

According to a report by Global Market Insights, the atmospheric water production market was valued at $3.4 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach $13.5 billion by 2032.

There are two main methods of generating atmospheric water. The first is the refrigeration and condensation process, which cools moist air to its dew point, causing the water vapor to condense into liquid water. The second is a desiccant-based system that uses hygroscopic materials to absorb moisture from the air and then release it through a heating process.

Beth Koiki, co-founder and CEO of Majik Water, which manages about 40 atmospheric water generation units in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid regions, using cooling and condensation techniques to capture moisture from the air. Founded in 2017, Koigi was inspired to create Magic Water after experiencing water shortages during a drought while studying in Nairobi in 2016. “It made me realize that we take for granted that water will always be there,” he says.

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Magic Water works with NGOs and humanitarian organizations, and is sold in stores. Majik’s largest unit produces 500 liters of water in 24 hours and is installed in schools and small communities. Despite the need for the system his company has created, Koiki doesn’t see it as a permanent solution. “Honestly, I believe it’s not a solution to water scarcity. “It’s a temporary solution…especially because it’s not cheap,” he says.

To make these systems more accessible, manufacturers are focusing on improving the energy efficiency of atmospheric water production systems. Avinash Singh, associate director of research and consulting at Global Market Insights, notes that innovations in compressors, heat exchangers and desiccants have improved the energy efficiency of such systems. Additionally, government support, subsidies, or environmental regulations may lead to greater adoption of the technology.

One development that has helped the adoption of such systems is the increasing use of digital payments. Vera Khan, an Italian company, has water production units in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America. “When we started with off-grid communities, it was a cash-based partnership, which wasn’t really viable. Now it’s going digital,” he said. Stephen WhiteGlobal Business Director at Veragon.

Although the prices of the units are not cheap, Verragan argues, producing water on site has an advantage in terms of costs, since water is very heavy and not easy to transport.

Looking ahead, Relationship Labs will see how advances in materials science can improve the efficiency of desiccants and reduce the heat required for the process, making its technology more effective and accessible.

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Uravu Labs’ technology can significantly reduce data centers’ freshwater consumption by capturing most of the waste heat and recirculating cold water. “This process can reduce the data center’s fresh water consumption by up to 95%,” says Srivastav.

Innovation in atmospheric water production offers a promising solution to address the growing water crisis, providing a vital resource in areas affected by drought and climate change.

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