Clean water technology making waves
SunToWater produces clean water from water in the air. (Middle) Benjamin Blumenthal (Below) SunToWater commercial applications. Photos courtesy of SunToWater
Typically, people describe a nearly impossible task to be like pulling water out of thin air. Thanks to technology, the expression these days doesn’t hold, well, water.
Benjamin Blumenthal is the founder and CEO of SunToWater Technologies, which aims to make the production of fresh, clean water a sustainable resource.
An industry expert who has spoken to everyone from elected officials to military personnel to world leaders about water issues, Blumenthal founded the company on the principal that every human has a right to fresh, clean drinking water.
While many of us can turn on a tap to pour a glass anytime we want, scores of people worldwide cannot. Hence, his three-tiered approach:
- Make water
- Save lives
- Change the world
And for the array of businesses for which water is a lifeline to their success — industrial operations, restaurants and hotels — Blumenthal anticipates that the SunToWater generator will be a game-changer, enabling companies to produce their own supplies, saving thousands of dollars monthly and no longer taxing local community resources.
As water remains a key concern for commercial businesses and developers, Proud Green Building talked with Blumenthal earlier this month about SunToWater’s application and solution he believes it can provide in both the short- and long-term futures.
PGB: This product generates water from the air. And not just any water — clean, drinkable water. How does this work?
Benjamin Blumenthal:The technology works by blowing the ambient air across a salt-base absorbing element inside the unit. That gets the water out of the air and into a salty solution. Then we apply heat to bake that water out of the salty solution and into a closed loop of steam that is condensed into distilled water. We mineralize it to make it ready for consumption.
The traditional way of getting water out of the air is a refrigerant-based technology. That’s been around for a very long time. Refrigerant-based technology pushes freon through a coil that gets very cold, interacts with the outside air and the water drops into a solution. For you to get that freon through that coil, it takes a lot of energy, which means there’s a high cost. It also means you have dirty water from dirty air, and it can’t ever work in a desert because there isn’t enough humidity to make that technology work.
Our technology was built specifically to address all of those issues. It uses 70 percent less energy than the refrigerant-based technology and costs four to five times less per gallon. It can make clean water even in heavily polluted areas like Shanghai or Beijing … it’ll still makes World Health Organization standard drinking water and, very importantly, can operate in deserts. The Sahara Desert is 24 percent relative humidity. In cracked-earth Africa, where nothing can grow, there is 18 percent relative humidity. We created an artificial environment of 14 percent relative humidity, and we were still able to produce water.
So pretty much anywhere a person wants to live, we can make water for them. That’s never been done before.
PGB: When will this technology be released for commercial use?
BB:We’re going to be spinning our manufacturing assembly line up in late 2017 or early 2018. We have a functional device in Dallas.
Our prototype, we drove it to Louisville, Ky., and tested it there. One of the things we wanted to test was the air quality in Louisville, because it is contaminated with jet fuel from its UPS hub. Jet fuel is one of the hardest and stickiest stuff to get out of anything — it’s a heavy contaminant, not a light one. We wanted to test whether our device would allow the polluted air to go into the unit, go through the unit and be blown out of the unit without impacting the production of water, and it did.
Louisville, surprisingly, was one of the only places in the United States where we tested it because the air is just about as bad as L.A. smog.
The way our system works, we’re getting water from the air, then putting it into a steam, the condensing that steam. That’s pure distilled water. And then we are remineralizing it with what is absolutely necessary for the body to be healthy. Even if the air is super contaminated, we’re still able to get the water out of the air, bake it into a steam and provide clean water.
PGB: Depending on the type of business or structure, a commercial operation can use tens of thousands of gallons of water each day. How quickly does the application produce water and how much can it produce?
BB:With larger businesses and larger water needs, we have container and pallet-sized units that can produce up to 4,000 gallons a day in a 24-hour cycle. The applications for that are numerous when it comes to the commercial world.
We have universities and executive campuses, vineyards. There are golf courses and cemeteries, both of which if they don’t have green grass, they can’t effectively market their properties. You don’t want to play golf or bury a loved on a brown field.
You also have the gas and oil industry, where they often spend time setting up camps for people in very remote locations. Those locations don’t have water or don’t have easy access to water, so they’ll truck in water extensive distances. Trucking water means you’re burning gasoline to move a small amount of water.
If you moved one of our units into place, you can produce water onsite to meet the needs of that camp.
There are also data centers and electronic storage facilities that add a different aspect to this. They want the dry air. Humidity and electronics don’t play nice together.
In regard to water production, it’s not just commercial. It’s also industrial.
A beverage company might decide to put a beverage company into Las Vegas, but Las Vegas has minimal water resources. If they did that, an average beverage company might use 400,000 gallons of water in a day. The company could dry up the local resources. This way they can put a facility anywhere they want and not negatively impact the local water resources.
PGB: How could this application impact the green building industry?
BB:There are a lot of applications for the larger commercial unit. When it comes to green building, the LEED certifications that buildings have, we hope that in the next few years that getting to LEED platinum will mean producing your own water. The way solar panels got buildings off the power grid, our water generators will get buildings off the water grid, in whole or in part. That should be a part of the LEED platinum process, and we’re working on getting toward that.
PGB: What fueled the idea for the SunToWater application?
BB:As you are sitting in your office, there are radio waves all around you but you can’t hear them unless you have a radio. There are television waves all around you, but you can’t see if it you don’t have a television. And believe it or not, there is water all around you, but you can’t drink it without a water generator.
When you think about that in the context of people and children around the world who don’t have water to drink or wash and they’re surrounded by it — there’s an ocean of fresh water just above their heads — but they lack the technology that could bring the water down into a central focal point and produce a lake of water at their feet — they just lack the technology — that’s what we’re bringing to the world.
PGB: Water issues seem to be more prevalent around the world, not just with shortages but also with contamination and increased usage. How does SunToWater address those issues? Is this solution a difference maker?
BB:We don’t see how this technology doesn’t make a global impact. If you’re a homeowner in California and you want to keep your grass green during a drought or you’re a golf course that wants to stay open and not be impacted by the water scarcity, or you’re living in Flint, Mich., and struggling with water contamination, or you're in Africa or Mexico where water is driving all sorts of pain, everyone one of those people have one thing in common. They’re standing underneath an ocean of fresh water.
This is a true innovation. What Apple became to the telecommunications industry and how Tesla innovated within the transportation space, we’re positioning ourselves to be the emerging leader in the water generation space.
We’re not the solution in its entirety. We are part of the solution set.
PGB: You referenced solar panels and how, thanks to them, buildings are coming off the grid. Is there similar potential with water?
BB:If you’re living in a city with scarcity problems, like California — when there were power outages there were rolling brownouts — you have any idea how rolling dry-outs are going to be when the next big one comes? If you’re a business that depends on water and you’re in California and you have a rolling dry-out, the negative impact cannot be measured by how much you save per gallon.
This is an issue of water security and independence. You might be paying X today for water per gallon; you might be paying double that in five years. We know the price of water is going to go up because we know how the water consumption trends are heading — the availability is going down and the demand is going up. That means prices are going up.
If you're a business and you have the ability to buy a machine that makes the water for you at a set, low price that you can lock in today, that’s a smart move.
We talked about scarcity. What about contamination? Tell me one business that was reliant on water that is still around today.
Water scarcity is one problem. Water contamination is the second.
The third is a natural disaster, like a flood in New Orleans or a hurricane in Florida or, the most likely, the big earthquake in California, which everybody knows is coming. What happens when those businesses are impacted. The water from the shelves will be gone in a matter of hours, maybe minutes.
The question is what happens next? If FEMA can’t get to the people, you’re going to have a problem.
If you’re a business depending on water and the earthquake interrupts your supply line, what happens to your business? If you have one of our containers sitting on your property not using pipes — we have a pipeless water infrastructure — if the pipes break and you have one of ours, your neighbors’ businesses might go down but yours won’t.
There are so many different ways to look at the financial savings. If we tried to calculate those savings, you have to make certain assumptions about current water prices and whether they’re going to stay there. There’s a significant savings today, and those are going to increase each year as the population grows and the pull on that water grows.
Over the last 100 years, our population has grown by 300 percent, but our water usage has grown by 600 percent. What does that tell you? This is not sustainable.
We have to figure out how to get new sources of water. That’s what this is. This is a new source. It’s always fresh, always potable and always available, no matter what happens.
PGB: What does this mean for the future of water usage in commercial buildings?
BB:One of the most rapidly growing titles is chief sustainability officer. In corporate America, certain corporations are putting someone in charge of selection and creation of processes to consider the ecological impact we have on the world and how green energy and green living will impact the business. We are going to be a part of that solution.
We’re working with green architects around the world. As they look at the development of the buildings of the future, those buildings are going to incorporate all sorts of green technology.
Our device is going to affect the design of those buildings, very much like the air conditioner affected the design of buildings 100 years ago. Today, an air conditioning unit is totally commonplace, but when it first came out, it was new and revolutionary and sat outside the building. Nobody really knew what it was, but it became necessary for living inside the building. We anticipate that that is where we are.
We’re in the infancy of the deployment of our technology for the next century of buildings. Buildings of the future most certainly will be making their own water.
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