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