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Making Drinking Water out of Thick Air

Friday, August 9, 2013

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We’ve all heard that you can’t get blood from a stone. But water from a desert billboard?

Engineers in Lima, Peru, have worked with an ad agency to pull it off.

UTEC billboard
Images, video: UTEC / MayoDraftFBC

Capturing humidity from Lima's saturated air, the billboard produces about 26 gallons of water a day for residents of the world's second-largest desert city.

The billboard produces about 100 liters (about 26 gallons) of water a day "from nothing more than humidity, a basic filtration system, and a little gravitational ingenuity," as Time Magazine put  it.

Ad Campaign

The invention began with a drive by the University of Engineering and Technology of Peru (UTEC) to find a flashy way to kick off its application period for 2013 enrollment. The university said it was looking for engineering students who wanted to "change the world."

Working with the ad agency Mayo DraftFBC, the parties—somehow—came up with the notion of inventing a billboard that could produce water.

It was an unlikely plan, to say the least: Lima is the second-largest desert city in the world after Cairo, and the billboard would be located smack in middle of the Peruvian desert.

The region gets about one-half inch of rain each year, and many residents rely on well water, which is scarce and often polluted.

Lima, Peru

About 1.2 million residents of Lima lack running water, according to a 2011 report.

In 2011, the British newspaper The Independent called Lima "The desert city in serious danger of running dry."

Humidity to the Rescue

The good news for UTEC, meteorologically speaking: The region's humidity level is about 98 percent. With the air suffused with moisture, the next challenge was to develop the technology to extract it.

Billboard schematic

And so they did, eventually building a system that employs five generators that capture the humidity and process it through a reverse-osmosis system that also includes filtration.

In the first three months, the system produced 9,450 liters of potable water—enough, the developers say, to satisfy the needs of hundreds of families each month.

Looking Ahead

The engineering school has not said whether it is planning to install additional billboards in Peru or elsewhere.

But it has already increased its applications by future world-changing engineers 28 percent.


Tagged categories: Education; Engineers; Research

Comment from Gary Alkire, (8/9/2013, 7:38 AM)

So they made a large much does the water cost per gallon?

Comment from M. Halliwell, (8/12/2013, 11:26 AM)

Interesting idea. Sounds like you're right, Gary....large dehumidifier with treatment to make the water potable...but if you've got upflow winds or decent sunshine, it might be possible to set it up solar or wind powered too. Up front costs would be fairly high, especially for a place like Lima, but I would suspect the lifetime cost per litre could be fairly reasonable.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (8/15/2013, 9:44 AM)

So, how much additional power is consumed to produce 26 gallons of water per day? Also, the numbers of supported families just don't add up. Each person needs a bare minimum of 1 gallon per day for drinking and cooking - with no clothes washing, showers, baths, toilets, etc. there is no way you can support "hundreds of families" on 26 gallons a day.

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