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How a US company plans to produce drinking water in the middle of the desert

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The Arabian desert seems to be a less than ideal place to obtain drinking water, but the American company Zero Mass Water seeks to change this situation once and for all with interesting technology. It is based on the production of drinking water directly from the air.

The company will use renewable energy instead of fossil fuels that are being used to now powering the numerous desalination facilities located in Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates.

Once implemented, this project will be able to offer a model to follow to other countries with low levels of precipitation. In particular, it will help them produce drinking water in a more sustainable way and even drive agricultural progress to improve their food security.

The 2.4-meter x 1.2-meter rectangular boxes will absorb steam and extract water, using solar energy. While these facilities can operate in almost any area with many sunny days, Dubai’s hot and humid climate makes it a more suitable location for deployment, Zero Mass Water founder Cody Friesen said.

“The bottling plant is solar powered, the bottles we use are recyclable, and the caps are sustainable [made from bamboo],” Samiullah Khan, CEO of the IBV company, told Bloomberg.

Although the technology of obtaining water from the air is not new and is used in other places on our planet, Zero Mass Water stands out for the volume of liquid it plans to obtain and for its plans to bottle it, according to Roland Wahlgren, director of the consultancy, Atmoswater Research. However, in the foreseeable future, the planned production volumes will not reach those of wholesale water manufacturers.

Thus, Zero Mass Water will initially be able to produce up to 2.3 million litres a year: the volume comparable to that of an Olympic swimming pool. However, this method of water production is expensive, which is why Zero Mass Water can be placed in the same line of brands such as Evian and Fiji, whose water sells for about $ 2.72 per litre, Khan said in turn.

Technology related to the extraction of water from the air is still much more expensive than traditionally used desalination. Meanwhile, the demand for bottled water in the United Arab Emirates is high. In fact, this country leads the world in terms of bottled water consumed per capita, according to data from the International Association of Aquifer Resources.

The Zero Mass Water plant is being built some 20 kilometres from Dubai, in the village of Lahbab, the camel breeding hub and desert safaris. It will start operating with 1,250 hydro panels, each of which will cost about $ 2,500. This plan foresees reaching 10,000 panels over time.

These hydro panels will have dust filters and will use a chemical compound that will capture only the water molecules, ensuring that it is purified even if the air is polluted. The use of this technique will be of great importance for the Gulf countries, which seek to reduce their extreme dependence on food imports and especially after the expansion of the pandemic that affected global supply chains. 

In July 2020, the United Arab Emirates imported 4,500 dairy cows from Uruguay to increase milk production. UAE is also trying to grow rice on its own territory. Success in this field depends largely on the use of sustainable amounts of water.

“The next step will be to produce water to grow tomatoes and other things locally, so there are no such transportation costs and money coming out of the economy to buy food,” said Cody Friesen, who is also a professor of engineering at the Arizona State University.

Agriculture that produces water from the air “can be commercially viable in the right climate, and the United Arab Emirates is in the right climate zone,” said Wahlgren, who has never worked for Zero Mass Water.

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