Can Human Survive on Water Vapor Alone?

The world is full of water, flushing down our lavatories and flowing from our taps. And yet where I live, in the American Southwest, and quite possibly where you live, the kind of water people need to survive is getting harder to come by. Across the region, temperatures are rising and droughts are getting more severe, and in the coming decades the West will struggle to supply the water its residents and businesses demand. Even in wetter regions like the Gulf Coast, where the cyclones are get stronger and the rainfall more persistent, much of that water glut is cleaning back out to sea, unused, leaving a path of destruction in its wake.

So I worry about the stuff: where it’ll come from, who will own it, when it will dry up. To steady my mind, I’ve turned to technology. More exactly, the emerging innovations that will keep us hydrated in the not-so-distant desertified future. There’s a company called NBD Nanotechnologies, are stationed in Boston, which stimulates coatings that can be added to plastic and metal surfaces, allowing them to pull water out of thin air.( NBD stands for Namib Beetle Design, referring to an insect that captures moisture on its body from surrounding fog .)

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Then I saw a company called Zero Mass Water, are stationed in Scottsdale, Arizona, that produces $2,000 “hydropanels” that the company asserts can capture water vapor from air. One panel can make up to five liters a day, and two of them together could make enough for a household’s daily drinking and cooking. In theory, someone–even me–could strap one of these panels to the bed of a truck, drive out to the desert, and live off the grid with water to spare.

The company’s founder and CEO had his doubts. Cody Friesen is a professor of materials science at Arizona State University with a boom, radio-ready voice, and he told me several times over the phone that, while he appreciated my outside-the-box thinking, his hydropanels weren’t intended for vehicular employ. They weigh 275 pounds and are intended for yards and rooftops , not truck beds. The “vibrational activity” involved with desert off-roading concerned him. But I pressed him, and after bestowing with his engineering team he eventually said that it could be done or, at the least this one time, tried. Once the truck-bound panel was ready, Friesen invited me out. “Will it work? ” I asked him when I arrived in Scottsdale.

“Probably, ” he told, grinning.