Almost everyone in the world – from Phoenix suburbanites to Syrian refugees, Navajos in northeastern Arizona to lead-poisoned children in Flint – has something in common: water stress.
We depend on a managed resource that isn’t always safe or reliable. In the U.S., there are 240,000 water main breaks each year, and in 2015, 1,110 community water systems exceeded the EPA’s lead limits.
Consequently, we spend money on bottled water and litter the oceans with plastic garbage patches. We waste time traveling to stores or, in less developed climes, wells. The United Nations estimates Africans spend 40 billion hours a year fetching water.
Cody Friesen wants to solve all these problems. His solution: Use solar panels to extract drinking water out of thin air. “It’s solar energy stored in a glass,” says the ASU material science professor and founder of Zero Mass Water.
Friesen invented SOURCE, a solar panel embedded with porous material that absorbs moisture from the atmosphere like rice in a salt shaker. The panel condenses water vapor, purifies it, and adds a splash of calcium and magnesium so it tastes like Evian. Each panel pipes about 5 liters of water a day to your kitchen.
The panels are entirely off the grid and take about an hour and a half to install. Sunlight creates heat that fuels the process in a way that’s many times more efficient than electricity-generating solar panels. “[It is], we think, world record-setting solar-thermal technology,” Friesen says.
The Scottsdale company has installed SOURCE at public schools in Mexico, where teachers have reported kids are focusing better because they aren’t sick from contaminated water. They’ve also installed units in Ecuador, Dubai, Jordan and, starting this year, homes in the U.S. Next up: Syrian refugee camps.
An ingenious cost-sharing structure helps people in need afford SOURCE without receiving free charity. “We want to democratize water for everyone everywhere,” Friesen says. “From the heart perspective, you [can] solve one of the greatest, if not the greatest challenge facing humanity. And from the mind perspective, or the capitalistic perspective, there’s an infinite market.”
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