Wa­ter out of thin air: Calif. cou­ple’s de­vice wins $1.5M

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - PEOPLE & ARTS - By John Rogers

LOS AN­GE­LES — It started out mod­estly enough: David Hertz, hav­ing learned that un­der the right con­di­tions you re­ally can make your own wa­ter out of thin air, put a lit­tle con­trap­tion on the roof of his of­fice and be­gan crank­ing out free bot­tles of H2O for any­one who wanted one.

Soon he and his wife, Laura Doss-Hertz, were think­ing big­ger — so much so that this month the cou­ple won the $1.5 mil­lion XPrize For Wa­ter Abun­dance. They pre­vailed by de­vel­op­ing a sys­tem that uses ship­ping con­tain­ers, wood chips and other de­tri­tus to pro­duce as much as 528 gal­lons of wa­ter a day at a cost of no more than 2 cents a quart.

The XPrize com­pe­ti­tion, cre­ated by a group of phi­lan­thropists, en­trepreneurs and oth­ers, has awarded more than $140 mil­lion over the years for what it calls au­da­cious, fu­tur­is­tic ideas aimed at pro­tect­ing and im­prov­ing the planet. The first XPrize, for $10 mil­lion, went to Mi­crosoft co-founder Paul Allen and avi­a­tion pi­o­neer Burt Ru­tan in 2004 for SpaceShipOne, the first pri­vately fi­nanced manned space flight.

When Hertz learned a cou­ple of years ago that a prize was about to be of­fered to who­ever could come up with a cheap, in­no­va­tive way to pro­duce clean fresh­wa­ter for a world that doesn't have enough of it, he de­cided to go all in.

At the time, his lit­tle wa­ter-mak­ing ma­chine was crank­ing out 150 gal­lons a day, much of which was be­ing given to home­less peo­ple liv­ing in and around the al­ley be­hind the Stu­dio of En­vi­ron­men­tal Ar­chi­tec­ture, Hertz's Venice Beach, Calif.,-area firm that spe­cial­izes in cre­at­ing green build­ings.

He and his wife, a com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher, and their part­ner Richard Gro­den, who cre­ated the smaller ma­chine, as­sem­bled The Skysource/Sky­wa­ter Al­liance and went to work. They set­tled on cre­at­ing lit­tle rain­storms in­side ship­ping con­tain­ers by heat­ing up wood chips to pro­duce the tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity needed to draw wa­ter from the air and the wood it­self.

“One of the fas­ci­nat­ing things about ship­ping con­tain­ers is that more are im­ported than ex­ported, so there's gen­er­ally a sur­plus,” said Hertz, adding they're cheap and easy to move around.

And if there's no wood chips around for heat, co­conut husks, rice, wal­nut shells, grass clip­pings or just about any other such waste prod­uct will do just fine.

“Cer­tainly in re­gions where you have a lot of biomass, this is go­ing to be a very sim­ple tech­nol­ogy to de­ploy,” said Matthew Stu­ber, a pro­fes­sor of chem­i­cal and biomolec­u­lar en­gi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut and ex­pert on wa­ter sys­tems who was one of the panel's judges.

He called their wa­ter­mak­ing ma­chine a “re­ally cool” merg­ing of rather sim­ple tech­nolo­gies that can be used to quickly de­liver wa­ter to re­gions hit by nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, stricken by drought or even ru­ral ar­eas with a short­age of clean wa­ter.

Hertz and Doss-Hertz are just start­ing to con­tem­plate how to ac­com­plish that.

Theirs was among 98 teams from 27 coun­tries who en­tered the com­pe­ti­tion. Many teams were big­ger and bet­ter funded, while the cou­ple mort­gaged their Mal­ibu home to stay in the game. At one point, they were told they hadn't made the fi­nal round of five, but one team dropped out and they were back in.

“If you say we were the dark horse in the race, we weren't even in the race,” Hertz re­called.

Now, though, they are in for the long, wet haul.

“There's no re­stric­tions what­so­ever on how it's used,” Hertz said of the prize money. “But Laura and I have com­mit­ted to us­ing it all for the de­vel­op­ment and de­ploy­ment of these ma­chines, to get them to peo­ple who need the wa­ter most.”

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