new breed of green engineers is working to avert the world’s looming water issues by grabbing water out of thin air. And South Africa-based Cirrus Water Management is joining the party with its independently engineered waterharvesting technology that generates clean drinking water from the ambient atmosphere.
Only 2% of the water on earth is fresh rather than salt water. And scientists fear we are rapidly running out of clean fresh water. Changing climate patterns show water scarcity is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
To make matters worse, only 25% of all fresh water is accessible to humans.
But there are about 12 900km³ of water, mostly in the form of water vapour, in the atmosphere at any one time.
Although the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and dams, including the Vaal and Berg River, will continue to supply the bulk of our water, futurists predict that new technologies, such as atmospheric water generation, must be used to create new supply lines for clean drinking water.
Sputnik Ratau, the department of water affairs’ spokesperson, concedes that his department’s drinking water quality remains a challenge in South Africa. Water from the Vaal River has been called into question and continues to be contaminated by untreated sewage and acid mine drainage.
And drinking water contamination in towns such as Bloemhof, Carolina, Brits and Grahamstown has led to a boom in business for so-called water shops.
One of the more dramatic shifts in consumption in recent years has been the explosive growth in the consumption of bottled water. South Africans spend more than R2 billion on bottled water annually, and will spend even more in years to come.
Cirrus commercial director Bruce Jones says: “The frequency, geographical spread and associated violence of service-delivery protests over water, among other social demands, has shown that water scarcity is now a mainstream concern.”
The drinking water crisis in Grahamstown led to the establishment of Cirrus. Most people in the city won’t drink the municipal water any more, Jones says.
Seven years ago, Cirrus co-founder Lindsay Charters, a microbiology student at Rhodes University, had enough of paying for bottled water. She wished she could start a business that would give the people of Grahamstown better access to clean drinking water.
Along with her father, she started investigating internationally manufactured atmospheric-water-generator machines, but found none suitable to South Africa’s needs.
The duo, with Jones, started research and development to manufacture an affordable water generator for this country. Cirrus began operating commercially two years ago.
“We dream of a world where everyone has access to clean, affordable drinking water in a way that is also kinder to the environment,” says Jones. He says that with the country already classified as water scarce – with extreme climate and rainfall fluctuations – water demand can, to an extent, be taken off the grid, especially in urban areas.
Taking water out of the atmosphere is not a novel idea. Natural fog harvesters, such as beetles and plants, have served as inspiration worldwide for how to tap into the atmosphere’s water reserves.
The most basic, and possibly most accessible, form of atmospheric water-harvesting technology works by collecting water and moisture from the atmosphere using micronetting – fog harvesting. The micronets collect water that drains down into a collection chamber. This fresh water can then be stored or channelled into homes and farms as needed.
Researchers from Unisa, along with others from the University of Pretoria, have run a number of fogharvesting projects to provide communities with clean drinking water.
As far back as 2008, the Eastern Cape’s Alfred Nzo District Municipality had a fog-harvesting system installed in a bid to boost potable water supplies to the district’s residents. And on the west coast, researchers are testing their fog-harvesting technology at Lepelfontein.
But in the past five years, engineers have begun playing with more sophisticated technologies that may allow houses to generate their own water supply and crops to irrigate themselves. There may even be “waterless” cities, all using the vapour in the air.
As a result, a new breed of green-oriented businesses, such as Cirrus, is looking to the skies to solve the water crisis. These companies use a variety of technologies to drive down the costs of extracting water from air.
Cirrus’ machine works on the cooling-to-condensation principle. The air drawn into the machine’s condensation chamber is cooled to a temperature at which the water vapour in the air condenses, generating water.
Jones says air pollution is not a problem for creating some of the cleanest water on the planet.
“We tested our technology in one of the dirtiest cities in the world, Mumbai, and we still got the clean, full, round taste of our water,” he says.
South Africans use between 10% and 15% of their water for drinking, cooking and washing. Cirrus’ smallest unit sells for R90 000 and produces 100 litres a day, enough for several households.
Cirrus’ water is generated at 70c a litre (R1.50 with financing), as opposed to the more than R10 a litre that many people pay for bottled water.
Subsidised municipal water costs 2c a litre.
Cirrus has already installed water generators at a gas and mining exploration project in Mozambique. Other places using Cirrus’ generators include commercial buildings, such as office parks and colleges; remote businesses, including bush lodges and oil rigs; and hotels and conference centres.