Clean, safe drinking water is a necessity for human existence, but its scarcity is what has prompted strife and discord between nations for centuries. But a new model developed through the combined efforts of Google, the moonshot factory of its research and development arm X-Alphabet, and a joint monitoring program (JMP) between the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF suggest that solar power may be the key to providing safe drinking water for a billion people.
The model involves the use of a solar-powered device that can harvest water from the air. This and corresponding findings, including relevant factors and potential impact, were presented in a paper published by the group in the most recent issue of R&D journal Nature.
Desalination is not the answer
At present, nearly 2.2 billion people are unable to get safe drinking water.
Prior to the development of the x-Alphabet model, desalination through specially-equipped facilities has been the go-to solution for making seawater or brackish water potable for people living in deserts or coastal zones with virtually no access to sources of freshwater.
Despite the best efforts of many countries, however, these have barely made any significant headway in providing substantial amounts of drinking water on a regular basis.
A potential solution
While countries and international aid organizations continue to build desalination plants, the joint X-Alphabet effort suggests that, for the time being, these initiatives can be augmented by the use of small portable solar-powered devices that can distill water from the air.
Admittedly, the technology works best in specific weather conditions and areas, particularly those where humidity levels can go as high as 30% on a regular basis, the weather is consistently sunny, and the local climate is warm enough. In the process of pinpointing these areas, the research team opted to account for people living in zones experiencing these specific conditions across the globe and mapped them against populations in dire need of potable water.
Based on the team’s findings, they noted that over a billion people could benefit from solar-powered devices with the ability to produce an average daily output of five liters of safe drinking water. Given the rate of development for relevant technologies, this hypothetical model may soon become a reality. However, the wider distribution of such equipment may be adversely impacted by cost and potential supply chain issues.
The X-Alphabet team has begun working on such devices, but is still trying to find solutions as to how these can produce water at the cost of one cent per liter. Recently, in light of the ongoing UN COP26 summit in Scotland, the initiative has been made open-source to enable interested parties to add their own input and contribute to the development.