When a family in Guayaquil, Ecuador turns on the tap for a glass of water, it doesn't flow from city pipes—there are no city pipes. Instead, a new type of solar panel in the backyard turns moisture in the air into clean drinking water and sends it inside the family's simple bamboo home.
"We started this company to provide water to everyone, everywhere," says Cody Friesen, CEO of Zero Mass Water, the startup making the new solar panel, called Source.
"Everybody's heard about the latest nanofilter this...or whatever the latest pump technology is," he says. "None of those end up being sort of the leapfrog technology that addresses the fact that drinking water is a fundamental human right, and yet we have one person dying every 10 seconds from waterborne illness on the planet."
Friesen, who also founded an energy storage company called Fluidic, has been thinking about water scarcity all of his life, growing up in the Sonoran Desert. While installing his battery technology in Indonesia—which has plenty of rain, but still lacks clean drinking water—he decided to begin focusing his time on the issue of global water supply.
The startup created a material that passively absorbs water from the air. It's a hyper-efficient, fast version of what happens if you leave a bowl of sugar open and it starts to clump from moisture. Then the solar panel powers a process that drives the water back out. The water is evaporated to purify it, removing pollutants.
"Basically everybody who runs an air conditioner makes water from air," says Friesen. "That part's not the magic part. We do that really, really efficiently, independent of infrastructure. We do that in a way that what you have as a result is essentially double distilled water. Ultra pure water."
After the water is purified, it's run through a mineral block to add calcium and magnesium and improve the taste. The result is water that can help eliminate disease. Having water at home also saves time; women in sub-Saharan Africa spend an estimated 40 billion hours a year collecting water.
The startup thinks the product can help more than just the poorest people in the world. "There are many people in the world...kind of the 'middle billion,' who have jobs and make maybe modest sums of money compared to you or me, but they live a life that is pretty close to what we live," says Friesen. "Except that their infrastructure stinks, so they end up buying a lot of bottled water."
In parts of the U.S.—like the 5,300 water systems that have issues with lead pipes—the startup's panels could also provide an alternative to bottled water for people worried about water quality.
A single panel can provide drinking and cooking water for a family of four, and businesses or hospitals can scale up with multiple panels.
The company has installed panels in pilot programs in Ecuador, Jordan, Mexico, and the U.S., and will install in more countries over the next few weeks. In 2017, they plan to scale up to larger systems.
Eventually, they're hoping the panels become ubiquitous. "When you think about solar today, what do you think about? Electricity," he says. "Everybody thinks that way. I think that in a few years when people think about solar they'll also think about water abundance."