Could Technion Researchers Solve the World’s Water Crisis?

March 12, 2018
By: ZAVIT - Science & Environment in Israel

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by 2025, about half of the world’s population will live in areas where there is a shortage of clean drinking water. Is it possible that the solution to the global water crisis is, literally, right under our noses? Technion researchers have developed a model for a system that separates the moisture naturally present in the air around us and converts it into drinking water. The patented system, and how it can help prevent the water crisis that awaits the world, was recently presented by Associate Professor David Broday of Technion’s Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering at a seminar on water, energy, treatment, and recycling.

“Water is available and free to everyone”

Associate Professor Broday, who developed the system together with his colleague Associate Professor Eran Friedler, explains that the idea is to take advantage of a resource that is constantly and abundantly present around us.

“The atmosphere is everywhere, and there is humidity everywhere,” says Broday. “No atmosphere is completely dry; there is humidity even in the air of the arid Sahara Desert. In fact, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere is equal to the amount of fresh liquid water in the world (i.e. not accounting for glaciers). This is a huge amount of water freely available to everyone with no restrictions.”

Harvesting moisture from the air is not new, and there are several companies around the world that have already developed technologies around this concept. This existing technology, says Broday, is similar to a domestic air conditioner that cools air that comes from the outdoors, uses the cold air, and discards the water condensed during the cooling process. In the case of moisture harvesting technology, it is the air that is discarded and the water that is used. “The existing technology actually takes air and cools it to extract the moisture from it,” explains Broday. “It is brought to a state where the moisture condenses on a cold surface and drips from it, then it is collected and used for drinking.”

But, says Prof. Broday, there is a problem with this technology. “Air is composed not only of moisture but also of other gases like oxygen and nitrogen, and this technology invests in cooling them along with the humidity,” he explains. “Air volume contains only 4 to 5 percent humidity, at best, which is a very small part. A lot of energy is invested in cooling something of which more than 90 percent doesn’t get used at all. This is an ineffective use of energy. This process is expensive to begin with, and in effect most of the energy goes towards cooling material that we are not at all interested in.”

With their system, the researchers propose to optimize this process by separating moisture from the air before cooling it. Doing so will make it possible to invest energy in cooling only the moisture itself and converting it into available water.

The Technion system is also a radical departure from attempts by others who are trying to develop membranes that will separate the moisture out of the air (like the desalination process in which membranes separate salt from seawater).

“The alternative we are proposing is based on the use of an absorbent substance called a desiccant, which is a highly concentrated saline solution that naturally absorbs the moisture from the air when it comes into contact with it,” Broday explains. “The idea is to use this material to absorb a large amount of moisture from the air, and to cool the moisture only after this has been accomplished.”

“Our system is composed of several stages,” he explains. “In the first stage, it will circulate air to transfer moisture from the air to the dessicant, which is in a liquid state. This cycle is repeated over and over again, as the dessicant collects more and more moisture from the air. In the second stage, we transfer a small portion of the dessicant to another part of the system, where we produce conditions that cause the desiccant to release the moisture. This moisture is then condensed and turned into water. For this to happen, we need to cool it down – this is the third stage, which is actually similar to what happens in existing systems; but unlike them, at this stage we cool 100 percent humidity rather than air, only a fraction of which is relevant to our needs.”

Drinkable water in the middle of the desert

According to the researchers, their proposed system isn’t just more energy-efficient. It also provides cleaner water. After cooling, the water collected in the system should be suitable for immediate drinking, as opposed to existing technologies in which air is cooled in its entirety. “If the air spinning in a system – in addition to moisture – contains disease-causing bacteria, when it is cooled and the water condenses, the bacteria in the air may also find their way into the water,” Broday explains. “This means this water may require purification to make it fit for consumption.­­­­

“In our system, the air does not meet the cooling coils at all – only the moisture that is separated from it. As a result, even if the air contains substances we do not want to reach the water, they are absorbed into the dessicant but not released in the next stage,” he says. “Even if bacteria, dust, and the like have accumulated, because it is a very concentrated salt solution, it simply dries up. So the resulting moisture would be clean, and the water, pure. Of course they would be tested, but the need for water treatment processes would probably be much smaller, which is expected to lower the price of using it.”

Using the system would not be without cost, and the researchers emphasize that their method of producing water is more expensive than desalination.

“Where water can be desalinated – that is, in proximity to a source of water such as a sea or brackish lakes – desalination is the preferred option,” explains Broday. “Economically speaking, it makes sense to desalinate and produce a system for transporting water to places that are up to about 62 miles away. Any further than this, and the cost of transportation becomes more expensive than the cost of desalination. There are also towns located close to rivers where water is suitable for use. But when we take all of these out of the equation, there are quite a few places in the world where desalination and direct use are not economically viable.”

The Technion researchers’ system has not yet been built, but they have already performed simulations with a model to see how the system would function in different climatic and humidity conditions. “We wanted to see whether the system can be used in areas where the air is arid,” says Broday, “for example in the Sahara Desert, and in Yemen, which is currently experiencing a severe hunger crisis and lack of drinking water.” He says the system is both relatively small and allows for distributed production of water that does not depend on one source from which the water must be piped to all the other localities.

“We strongly believe in the idea and the preliminary results,” says Broday. “But we still have to put the theory into practice. That’s the next stage.”

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is a major source of the innovation and brainpower that drives the Israeli economy, and a key to Israel’s renown as the world’s “Start-Up Nation.” Its three Nobel Prize winners exemplify academic excellence. Technion people, ideas and inventions make immeasurable contributions to the world including life-saving medicine, sustainable energy, computer science, water conservation and nanotechnology.

American Technion Society (ATS) donors provide critical support for the Technion—nearly $2.5 billion since its inception in 1940. Based in New York City, the ATS and its network of supporters across the U.S. provide funds for scholarships, fellowships, faculty recruitment and chairs, research, buildings, laboratories, classrooms and dormitories, and more.