Can Humidity Fix Post-Hurricane Problem?

reverse osmosis banner vertical

Air Alchemy: Can Humidity Solve Post-Hurricane Water Problem?

Tallahassee, Fla.-- In a country like the United States, one of the human body's most urgent needs is taken for granted. It comes easily out of our faucets, and gallon jugs of it cost less than a dollar.

Until something like a hurricane makes clean drinking water hard to find.

But the Southeast's climate provides something besides hurricanes in summer. Humidity.

As emergency officials ponder how to better help their residents after disasters, some companies are pushing machines that pull the humidity from the air and turn it into drinking water. A few are also touting the machines as a potential solution to the clean water shortages that plague the Third World, pushing aside concerns that the machines are inefficient and require fuel that also might be scarce.

The biggest machines can make 5,000 liters of water a day, enough to provide about a gallon to 1,250 people. Small units cost several hundred dollars, while the biggest, most elaborate cost half a million.

"Tap water systems get knocked out, bottled water often disappears even before the storm shows up ... so this becomes a way to get drinking water that you can count on no matter what," said Jonathan Wright, president of Ogden, Utah-based AquaMagic, one of the companies selling the machines.

The company recently towed a portable unit around the Southeast, visiting fire departments, rescue workers, and city officials, trying to drum up interest.

AquaMagic's unit is too small to provide water for a whole city, but could at least provide water for rescue and cleanup workers so they wouldn't have to cart in truckloads of water, Wright said.

One potential buyer is David Roberts, who as fire chief in Biloxi, Miss., oversaw crews working in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which leveled much of his city.

"You don't realize how bad you need water until you don't have it," Roberts said. "In August, the humidity's 95 percent and its 95 degrees, you can drink a quart of water and it goes right out of you in about 30 minutes."

He called the AquaMagic machine "a great piece of equipment. The water tasted good, too."

Most of the companies making the machines aren't focused on the U.S. market.

Some, including one based in Miami Beach and another in Hollywood, Fla., are selling machines where clean drinking water is always hard to find in villages in the developing world.

"Right now at any given time, there are about 1.2 billion people that are drinking contaminated water," said Ron Colletta, vice president of sales for the Island Sky Corp. in Hollywood.

Scientists who study water shortages say that while the technology works simply and could be part of the solution, there are cheaper and easier ways to provide large-scale water purification if cleanliness is the issue.

The simplest is boiling it to remove microbes, or treating it with chemicals like chlorine, said Dr. Mark Sobsey, a professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health's Drinking Water Research Center.

But boiling has a problem in some poor areas.

"You've got to have fuel and to be able to pay for it," Sobsey notes.

But the biggest obstacle to the machines' wider use is making them cost-effective to fuel. Most are powered by diesel fuel. Some run on solar energy, but the panels require a costly initial investment.

Michael Zwebner, the president of Miami Beach-based Air Water Corp., admits the power question is a big problem, but he says the machines can be useful where there isn't enough water, to begin with or where people can't afford to pump it from the ground and treat it.

reverse osmosis banner square

"In many parts of Africa, there is no water," Zwebner said.

Until recently, there's been little interest in the technology because water is generally easy to get from streams or underground wells and, even in poor countries, it's cheap.

"It's been really only in the last 10 years that water scarcity has been appearing in a lot of places, mainly due to the growth of the human population ... and pollution," explained Roland Wahlgren, a physical geographer who studies water supply and is working to develop air-to-water systems with a Canadian company called Wataire Industries. "Groundwater and surface water supplies have decreased in quality."

Aquamagic's envisioned niche notwithstanding, the systems still aren't generally economically feasible on a large scale in developed countries with plentiful clean water like the United States.

And emergency managers ask: If you're going to truck diesel fuel into a storm-hit area to run the machines, why not just truck in water?

The answer, AquaMagic's Wright says, is that for one gallon of diesel, you can make 10 gallons of water. So one small truck of fuel would provide the amount of water you'd need 10 trucks to bring in.

Air Water's machine was used after the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the military in India has recently signed on to send it into the field with troops.

"In some countries in Africa they actually see this machine as an act of God," Zwebner said.

Written by David Royse, The Associated Press

Reading next