Turning air into water
Digital Solutions Europe Water treatment

Turning air and sunlight into water for rural communities

Monday, 4 September 2023

Scientists at Northumbria University in the UK have pioneered a new technology that uses solar energy to extract moisture from the air and convert it into clean, safe drinking water. It holds the potential to provide safe drinking water to underserved communities without requiring specialist expertise, they claim. 

Addressing the current water crisis

Dr. Muhammad Wakil Shahzad, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Construction Engineering and his team, have created the patented Solar2Water technology. The ambition is to address the current water crisis, particularly in remote areas of the world. 

Using conventional atmospheric water generators the system creates a consistent water output, regardless of external humidity levels. Moreover, it produces double the amount of water using the same energy as other systems, the researchers claimed.

Scientists claim the patented system “overcomes the operational limitations of conventional atmospheric water generators” as it can “produce a constant amount of water, regardess of the outside air humidity”.

The Solar2Water unit features two solar panels that harness sunlight to initiate the water production process. Stored energy from solar panels powers the unit round-the-clock, ensuring uninterrupted water generation for daily use. The system is able to function in diverse environments, with “simplicity” meaning that no special training is needed to operate it, according to the university.

Air to water market growth

According to the United Nations, the global water crisis affects approximately one-third of the global population, depriving them of access to safe drinking water and sanitation services. This predicament is intensified by climate change, conflicts, and population growth, leading to a myriad of waterborne diseases. More than 800,000 individuals perish annually due to diseases stemming from insufficient access to clean water and sanitation, UN’s stats claim.

There has been considerable developments in the air to water market in recent years, including at the most recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with an atmospheric water generator for homes announced.

A previous BlueTech Horizon Scan report estimated there were over 70 companies in 2020 alone, with 32 actively selling in a market valued at $2m-$10m per year.

One of the poster children in the market is Source (formerly Zero Mass Water), which attracted a record $50 million from BlackRock.

Scaling up

Dr Shazhad said the tool would be powerful for use in disaster zones, refugee camps, remote communities, and more. He added that it has the potential to empower marginalised communities, particularly women and girls who often bear the burden of fetching water over long distances. By producing water directly from the air using solar energy, this innovation removes barriers to education, leisure activities, and economic opportunities.

Dr Shahzad's journey began with securing initial funding from Northumbria University to develop the Solar2Water concept. With the support of Northern Accelerator, a collaboration among the North East's universities, the prototype was refined and scaled up.

The pilot unit, funded by the Proof-of-Concept initiative, can already provide water for three to four households, but the team behind Solar2Water have plans to scale up the water production capacity to up to 0.05 m3/day, so that one unit can produce enough drinking water for a small community.