In the 21st century, two universal truths about water ring true. 1) It’s a source of life. 2) When polluted, it can be deadly—and access to potable water still eludes billions of people in poor and rural areas today.
But what if clean water could be conjured from thin air, materializing from nothingness to fill glasses, bathtubs, and reservoirs as if pure magic? It’s not sorcery, it’s science—and it could very well become a not-so-distant reality. That’s the goal for Arizona-based Source Global, which has engineered what it calls the world’s first truly renewable drinking water system. At its core is the company’s prized innovation: patented hydropanels that harness the energy of the sun to draw water vapor from the atmosphere, which works even in the driest climates on the planet, it claims. Presto—drinking water, like magic.
It’s a compelling quest, and it’s now been backed by Silicon Valley’s own master storyteller Chamath Palihapitiya, founder of Social Capital, who is pledging $7 million of his venture capital fortune to scatter hydropanels across California’s Central Valley. The state, which has been ripped by devastating wildfires and crippling drought, is what scientists call “ground zero” for the climate crisis, and Central Valley—a broad, flat region that composes much of the state’s inner turf—is the epicenter.
It’s even more dire, Palihapitiya explains, because Central Valley is typically a rich agricultural cornucopia that supplies more than half the vegetables, fruits, and nuts grown in the United States. Its output includes 99% of the country’s almonds, 95% of its broccoli, 92% of strawberries, and 90% of tomatoes. Naturally, that requires a ton of water: 5.5 gallons for a head of broccoli; an entire gallon for a single almond.
But in recent years, the dwindling water supply that cycles through the crop fields and into neighboring town faucets has become contaminated with toxic fertilizer, registering nitrate and arsenic levels five and six times the limit for safe consumption. If the crisis worsens, Palihapitiya says, “everybody in the United States is going to be impacted.”
In partnership with the one2one USA Foundation, a charitable organization that matches donors with beneficiaries, Source Global will affix hydropanels that supply clean water to 1,000 homes in the counties of Fresno, Monterey, Kern, and Tulare, largely on properties belonging to poor migrant workers. And as Palihapitiya tells it, equipping these families’ homes is just the start. For example, once a community of almond farmers sees the technology in action, it might be used to establish water-conserving drip irrigation systems, in place of current practices that involve flooding the plains with excess water.
For Palihapitiya, $7 million is a starting point, too. “I think about it like venture investing,” he tells Fast Company. “Today, in 2021, I’m investing $200 million to a billion dollars in a single deal. But if I wind the clock all the way back to 2007, I was investing $40,000. I feel like we’re starting like that here. We’re making a commitment to take a 20- or 30-year journey.”
The hydropanels, by the way, are actually not magic, but rather leverage a property called hygroscopy, which refers to a material’s ability to absorb moisture. According to Source Global founder Cody Friesen, it’s why you might put grains of rice in a salt shaker to keep it from clumping—the rice is more hygroscopic, so it “steals” the water vapor and the salt stays dry. The nanomaterial used to build the hydropanels does the same thing—it sucks in all the water vapor, and then solar power is used to create an internal climate where water vapor can transpire, much like how morning dew drops form on leaves. Once it collects, an Amazon Web Services-connected system verifies the water is sterile.
Founded in the mid-2010s, Source Global—formerly named Zero Mass Water—has put itself on the map by installing hydropanels in 52 countries, including a flagship project in Bahia Hondita, Colombia, where its fleet of more than 100 hydropanels supplied renewable drinking water for the indigenous Wayuu tribe, abolishing a six-mile daily journey to haul buckets of water from a local borehole. Other panels sit at fire stations in Puerto Rico, schools in India, and a refuge in northern Kenya, where girls freed from child marriages formerly crossed the areas they escaped to collect water from a dirty river. (They’re also at actor Robert Downey Jr.’s house in Malibu, Friesen notes.) But today, there are still 2.1 billion people globally who lack access to safe drinking water. And it’s estimated that by 2030, the world will have a 40% deficit of the fresh water it needs.
Unfortunately, many of those suffering the worst effects of the water crisis are people living below the poverty line or in rural and polluted areas across the globe. But that’s exactly what’s exciting about Source: “We’re starting with the people we can lift up the most,” Friesen says. According to him, it’s not just a resiliency effort: It could also offset the trillion plastic bottles sold each year, 95% of which take place in emerging markets where clean water sources are not guaranteed. That could happen as quickly as 10 years from now, says Friesen—although some skeptics, including a NASA climatologist in 2018, have questioned how economical it would be for Source to scale up.
The company says it will use Palihapitiya’s pledged funds for hydropanel installation and long-term service warranties, as well as community canvassing efforts to raise awareness. But at its roots, it says, the idea it’s selling is simple: “If the sun comes up tomorrow, you’re going to have your drinking water.”