MATTHEW SHEA­HAN

RAD­I­CAL SCIENCE IS EX­PLOR­ING WAYS TO HAR­VEST WA­TER FROM THE AT­MOS­PHERE, SO THE YACHT WA­TER­MAKER OF THE FU­TURE MIGHT LOOK VERY DIF­FER­ENT

Yachting World - - Front Page -

Some went for a swim, some streamed the Eng­land v Swe­den foot­ball World Cup match on their phones, while oth­ers sim­ply looked for a cor­ner of shade on the lee­ward side deck to try to avoid the blis­ter­ing heat. This year’s Round the Is­land Race was not only slow, but a scorcher in an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally dry Bri­tish sum­mer.

In the UK at least, it doesn’t take much to trig­ger a hosepipe ban and it seems likely that one can’t be too far away. And when it does, the only peo­ple who will be able to wash their decks with fresh wa­ter in the ma­rina will be those who have wa­ter­mak­ers.

Even then, our in­creas­ingly green con­sciences will ques­tion whether we should be burn­ing fos­sil fu­els and pump­ing par­tic­u­lates into the at­mos­phere in or­der to cre­ate wa­ter sim­ply to hose down a ten­der and flush out the cock­pit.

But there could be a new way of mak­ing all the wa­ter we need with­out hav­ing to force salt­wa­ter through a mem­brane at great pres­sure.

Some be­lieve con­jur­ing wa­ter from thin air should be pos­si­ble. At least that’s the aim of a tech­ni­cal com­pe­ti­tion that has been set up to en­cour­age those with in­no­va­tive minds to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity that there could be an­other way of har­vest­ing the liq­uid of life.

Ac­cord­ing to the com­pe­ti­tion or­gan­is­ers: ‘There are over 3 quadrillion gal­lons of wa­ter in the at­mos­phere, which ap­par­ently is enough to meet the needs of ev­ery per­son on the planet for a year.’

To win the $1.5mil­lion Wa­ter Abun­dance Xprize, teams have to be able to ex­tract 2,000 litres per day from the at­mos­phere us­ing 100% re­new­able en­ergy at a cost of no more than 2 cents per litre.

The com­pe­ti­tion was launched in Oc­to­ber 2016 and at­tracted 98 en­trants from 25 coun­tries. By Jan­uary this year the judges had started their first round of test­ing and had se­lected the top five teams.

Since then, there has been a sec­ond round of test­ing fol­lowed by a busi­ness plan sub­mis­sion and in Au­gust the win­ner will be an­nounced.

Among those who have reached the fi­nal five is a group of four Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don stu­dents who founded Thin Air. Their con­cept was in­spired by a bee­tle found in the Namib­ian desert that gath­ers minute wa­ter droplets on its hard­ened wings be­fore rolling them down into its mouth. Thin Air’s so­lu­tion uses a thin com­pos­ite mem­brane to repli­cate this.

An­other po­ten­tial so­lu­tion comes from Hawaii-based nu­clear physi­cist James Mc­can­ney, who pro­poses us­ing cur­rently avail­able wa­ter gen­er­a­tors but pow­ered by spe­cial wind tur­bines.

Mean­while, an In­dian team has set about us­ing a hy­gro­scopic ma­te­rial that col­lects the wa­ter at night be­fore us­ing so­lar col­lec­tors to heat, re­lease and con­dense the wa­ter by day. This, they claim, has the ad­van­tage of not re­quir­ing any elec­tric­ity for the process.

Tak­ing a sim­i­lar ap­proach, an Aus­tralian-based team at the Univer­sity of New­cas­tle in New South Wales has de­vel­oped a con­dens­ing box that uses a sil­ica gel-type ma­te­rial that ab­sorbs the mois­ture at night and is heated us­ing so­lar cells to re­lease the wa­ter dur­ing the day.

And then there’s the air con­di­tion­ing-type sys­tem de­vel­oped by Chicago based Sky­dra, which col­lects the wa­ter that is usu­ally cre­ated in air con­di­tion­ing units when air passes over coils filled with cold re­frig­er­ant.

Clearly there’s still a long way to go be­fore such sys­tems be­come re­al­is­tic propo­si­tions aboard the boats of the fu­ture. Yet there’s one other tech­ni­cal news story that caught my eye that’s linked into this con­cept.

Ac­cord­ing to sci­en­tists, astro­nauts may be able to sur­vive on plants that they have uri­nated on. The prin­ci­ple of extracting wa­ter from urine is well known and in­deed used. But it is the 5% of the fluid’s make up that con­tains nu­tri­ents such as ni­tro­gen, potas­sium and phos­pho­rus that are harm­ful to hu­mans but that plant life laps up.

The idea that fu­ture trips could see us act­ing like hu­man fil­ters by scoop­ing up the air and pee­ing on plants is not some­thing I’d con­tem­plated un­til now.

But hav­ing bobbed for hours on end in the bak­ing sun off the Isle of Wight, it’s now eas­ier to see how the idea might work.

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