Solar energy for clean water

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Have you ever wondered from where astronauts get their drinking water? They reclaim 93 percent of their waste water stored on their space shuttle - meaning their urine, sweat and shower runoff.  

Because resources in space are limited, creative alternatives are needed to survive the harsh environment. And like that spacecraft, our earth’s resources are also limited.

Eleven percent of the world’s population does not have access to clean and safe water. Out of the top 11 countries expected to be water-stressed by 2040, nine are in the MENA.

While Bill Gates may be keen on the idea on turning wastewater into drinking water and electricity, the region does have alternatives before resorting to a potentially disturbing experience.

The sun, the gift that keeps on giving, offers a urine-free solution to obtaining clean water in remote and off-grid locations - no batteries, energy storage or fossil fuels needed.

Producing potable water through small scale solar units depends on distilling unclean water which is either inserted into the panels, or extracted from thin air.

Extracting water from thin air

The moisture suspending in air could amount to 37.5 million billion gallons of water, which is enough to cover the entire surface of the Earth (land and ocean) with one inch of rain.

In an effort to capitalize of the latter, Zero Mass Water developed Source, a solar panel unit that can absorb the humidity from air, condense it, purify it and even add minerals to it. The result is clean water ready for consumption.

Zero Mass Solar panel for drinking water. (Image via Zero Mass Water)

The US-based company has transferred its technology to Jordan, where it is experimenting Source in different areas. They are expected to instal units in refugee camps inside the Kingdom and in Lebanon, where availability of clean water for refugee communities remains a critical humanitarian challenge.

One Source unit can yield five liters per day, enough to satisfy a family of four.

"Everybody who runs an air conditioner makes water from air," Zero Mass’s CEO Cody Friesen told Fast Co Exist last year.

"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," he said.

Clean water in the midst of a water crisis

The more popular method for purifying water through solar energy is through distilling unclean water that is inserted into the solar panel where it is then desalinated and ready to consume. International examples to this model include Desolenator,  Solar Water Solutions, and F Cubed.

In Gaza, only 10 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water. The immense shortage drove Fayez al-Hindi to develop a simple solar system over his roof that produced eight to 10 liters of drinking water a day.

Bilal Ghalib, currently living in Beirut and experimenting with solar-powered water purification systems on his roof, believes small scale desalinating solar systems might become more reliable than huge government led facilities.

“The most resilient processes in our bodies and in nature are decentralized,” he said during an interview with Wamda. “If you chop one part off something that is resilient, another part grows, but that doesn’t really work with these large scale water purification facilities, especially in places that don’t have really strong central governments, or in very rural areas”.

Ghalib aims to create 1m2  panels that produce 10 liters of water a day at a low cost of $100.

Solar water on the national level

High oil prices in the early 1970s sparked the growth of desalination in the Middle East. Oil and eventually gas dependant desalination became the ultimate method to produce drinkable water in the region.

Seven MENA countries are among the top 15 desalination markets in the world, Saudi Arabia topping the list with $13 billion. However, to produce the water needed, Saudi Arabia uses around 300,000 barrels of oil every day to desalinate seawater.

One of the regional key players is UAE Water Aid which works on finding solar solutions to water desalination.

With the recent reduction in oil prices, renewable energy seems to be offering a more viable and sustainable solution to solve the region’s water scarcity.

Countries implementing or willing to implement solar desalination projects include the UAE , Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

Ghalib sees the great potential in the region to host this industry. “The MENA is a sunny place and is surrounded by sea. We have so much salty and dirty water. What we don’t have is a special configuration of lenses and glass that can turn that into clean drinking water,” he said.

Feature image via Pexels.

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