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This Man Knows How To Make Drinking Water Out Of Thin Air

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David Hertz fills his bottle with the water from his atmospheric water generator. (Caleigh Wells/LAist)
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Think it's impossible to make anything appear out of thin air? Well, naysayers, meet David Hertz.

He and his colleagues have just won the $1.5 million X-prize for water abundance.

International teams competed to crack a singular problem: how to create 2,000 liters (528 gallons) of water in 24 hours, at less than 2 cents per liter using 100 percent renewable energy

It took David and a partnering team two years, but they finally did it.

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How?

For science geeks: by combining atmospheric water generators with biomass gasification.

For the rest of us: by harnessing the same process through which clouds are formed and vaporizing dead trees.

FROM HOUSES TO H2O

An architect living in Venice, Hertz has devoted his 35-year career to making sustainable stuff. Probably his most well-known is this house in Malibu where he built the roof out of the wings from an old Boeing 747.

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But a few years ago he was inspired to expand his career.

"Water is our most precious resource, and there are very few technologies available to actually create water," he said. "That's what fascinated me."

CLOUD IN A BOX

I went to visit him at his low-key office, down one of the confusing one-way streets that line Venice Beach.

That's where he showed me the first part of the prize-winning machine -- the atmospheric water generator, which can make about 500 liters of water a day.

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It's a giant gray cube, maybe four feet wide. Attached to it is a tiny spigot.

A fan sucks in air through a filter. That air then makes contact with an extremely cold surface to create condensation - drops of water - just like clouds are formed.

"It creates a space in between that gets very heavy with moisture and rains," Hertz said. "So it's like clouds in a box, if you will."

Oxygen and ozone are added to the water so no bacteria can form. It's then safe to drink - so safe, he's able to hand out bottles to the often homeless people passing by his door.

It can produce 150 gallons every day, which is enough to water a small household. And all that happens using energy from the solar panels on the office roof.

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ALCHEMY

To anyone who's curious: it tastes...like water. I expected a more exciting experience but it really does taste like nothing. Which is how Hertz said it should taste, since there's no extra groundwater minerals or tap water chlorine in there.

The downside of this machine is it uses refrigerant to create that cold microclimate, which isn't great for the environment. But neither is pumping water from a far-away source. Hertz said it's a step in the right direction.

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The trophy for winning XPrize's $1.5 million competition sits at the front of Hertz's office in Venice. (Caleigh Wells/LAist)

"There's still something about having this water come out of the spout," he said. "That's just still kind of a miracle. There's water in the air and I'm just taking a giant sponge essentially and just wringing it out. People think that's alchemy."

CLOUD IN A BOX 2.0

With his atmospheric water generator under his belt, Hertz saw a chance to make something bigger. In 2016, the XPrize innovation competition announced its next contest would be about making renewable water. While he knew how to make water, the renewable energy part was tricky. So Hertz's company partnered up with ALL Power Labs in Berkeley who were researching biomass gasification.

That's just a fancy way of describing a process which takes biomass (like dead trees) and vaporizes it by getting it really hot. Like 1300 degrees Fahrenheit hot. When it gets that hot, it releases steam.

Hertz and his partners used that steam to supply his atmospheric water generator. But here's the eco-friendly part: another byproduct of gasification is also a lot of heat, which Hertz and his colleagues used to fuel the process instead of outside electricity.

That's how creating the water stayed so cheap. And that's how it met Hertz's goal of helping the environment more than it hurts it. Because instead of that dead tree releasing carbon into the atmosphere, it is used to generate the water.

The other good news is it's a mobile, self-contained device.

THE ANSWER TO WATER SCARCITY?

While it's an elegant solution, Hertz said there are downsides. it's great for a place like California where there's plenty of dead trees, but in another climate it could encourage deforestation.

"This is just part of a solution of which we're going to need many solutions," he said, adding that the first step to finding those solutions is changing our worldview from one of scarcity to one of abundance.

"This is an example of abundance. We know there's abundant water in the atmosphere that's renewable. How do we use our ingenuity to come up with strategies to use that in an efficient way."

He said all the prize money will go toward fulfilling the goal that got him in the water business in the first place. "We are going to dedicate it 100% used right back into bringing water to those that need it most."

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.


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