How New Technology Could Help Those Who Need Water

More than a billion people go without potable water

Key Takeaways

  • A new portable device could produce clean water for drinking and sanitation. 
  • The gadget uses special materials to absorb the air and a heat exchanger that draws in heat over the material to release the water.
  • More than 1.1 billion people worldwide do not have access to water, and approximately 2.7 billion experience water scarcity.
Cropped image of hands cupped to catch water beneath a dripping faucet during a drought.
Nattapong Wongloungud / Getty Images

New technologies could help make safe drinking water available to more people around the world. 

Researchers recently announced they are working on a gadget that could address water scarcity. They are designing a portable device that literally can produce clean, safe water out of thin air. More drinking water is badly needed around the world, experts say. 

"We currently have a limited amount of safe water, and for various reasons, including lack of treatment, watershed erosion, climate change, and an increase in commercial competition for water, there will be even less water to serve an anticipated nine billion global population of people in 20 years," Mike Mantel, CEO of Living Water, a nonprofit that works to increase access to clean water, said in an email interview. 

"The problem of water scarcity will only increase without the intelligent development of technology to treat water, protect the planet and provide equitable access to low-income people," he added. 

Using Air to Make Water

Scientists and engineers from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the University of South Alabama, and GE are working on the water-producing device called AIR2WATER.

"Climate change is exacerbating water scarcity challenges, not only in developing parts of the world but also in well-developed countries, including the US and Europe."

The gadget uses special materials to absorb the air and a heat exchanger that draws in heat over the material to release the water. The US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funds the project, and it’s designed to produce enough daily water for 150 troops.

"Today, the logistics and costs involved with transporting water are staggering, and in dangerous war zone areas, result in casualties," David Moore, the head of the project, said in a news release.

"By creating a highly portable, compact device that efficiently extracts water from the atmosphere, we can save lives and ease the logistical and financial burden for our armed forces."

The same technology that brings water to troops also could help civilians. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 1.1 billion people do not have access to water, and approximately 2.7 billion experience water scarcity. 

Water on the planet is a finite resource. Only 1% of the water is non-salty consumable water, Hélio Samora, CEO of water resource company SmartAcqua, said in an email interview.

Cities like Singapore are using desalination technologies, but these are still very "expensive, and these practices are limited to only a few countries/regions in the world," he added.

Out of this 1% of drinkable water taken from rivers, lakes, springs, and wells, around 70% is used for food production (agriculture irrigation and livestock), Samora pointed out.

Empty water buckets waiting for fresh water from emergency mobile tank truck.
vinhdav / Getty Images

About 20% is used in the transformation industries, which is everything we consume–industrialized food, clothes, medicines, cars, simple every industrial process consumes water. Only 10% is used for human consumption.

"Another growing challenge is the aging of the distribution network of pipes, valves, and pumps that bring water from the sources to treatment and ultimately to our houses and companies," Samora added. 

Climate Change Impacts Water

Water challenges can be highly localized. Two places only miles apart can face very different conditions, Ralph Exton, chief marketing and digital officer at SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions, said in an email interview. 

"Booming population growth, industrialization, and agriculture are just a few factors contributing to demand for water being greater than the supply," he said.

"Climate change is exacerbating water scarcity challenges, not only in developing parts of the world, but also in well-developed countries, including the US and Europe."

But Exton said that the problem of getting enough clean water to people is solvable with current technology.

"What’s lacking is policy and funding to promote greater and faster adoption of these existing technologies," he added. "Education also plays an important role in increasing awareness and putting a groundswell of support behind water sustainability efforts that can speed adoption."

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