Solar power generation is no longer a folk tale, so what about water production through solar power? How does sunlight produce water? It sure sounds like an absurd idea, though BlackRock and Breakthrough Energy Ventures (venture capital by Bill Gates) have already invested in this peculiar concept.
New venture Zero Mass Water is developing Source Hydropanel, a solar water production technology used for remote areas. Sunlight does not produce water directly, thus this particular method uses hydrophilic nano material panels to absorb the moisture from the morning fog for instance, then provide electricity with the accompaniment of solar cell panels, which heats up the water absorbing materials, and releases water vapor, before condensing into water and adding minerals that would produce 12 bottles of water per day.
Cody Friesen, founder of Zero Mass Water, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and had previously founded a zinc-air fuel cell startup Fluidic, which was then purchased by South Africa-based Chinese entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, and became NantEnergy. Friesen focused on energy storage while running Fluidic, who traveled a number of undeveloped countries and attempted to seek for distributed energy markets, and discovered during the process that the remote areas not only lack in electricity, but what they need the most is actually water, which made Friesen wonder if solar power is able to introduce water resources for these remote areas on top of electricity.
The commercialized products of Zero Mass Water have been installed in residences, schools, resorts, and other facilities in 45 countries, and the company is also in the midst of planning for a commercial model that offers water sales instead of system sales. Zero Mass Water conducted a series C funding round in June 2020, with BlackRock as the lead investor, where Bill Gate’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures and American electricity company Duke Energy also participated in the funding. A total of US$50 million was raised, for which Friesen commented that it might be the “last round of funding” since the raised fund was more than enough.
Costing at US$5,500-6,500, the installation cost for Source Hydropanels contains system hardware and installation manpower, and the panels are able to produce 12 bottles of water per day, with an estimated system lifespan of 15 years, equaling an average cost of US$0.15 per bottle of water. Installation operators from the solar panel industry chain can be substantially incorporated for the installation in a business scale application.
Coastal areas in the desert can rely on desalination plants to obtain freshwater, though the existing cost remains relatively high, and it requires a heavy amount of investment from the government, where large-scale power plants and transmission facilities must also be established in addition to desalination plants, in order to provide power for the latter. In comparison with such large engineering, Zero Mass Water is able to allow residences to obtain potable water instantly, which is different to electricity as water is not prone to issues related to energy storage, connection with the power grid, and the calculation of power cost.
Zero Mass Water was inspired by the business opportunity of distributed energy in remote areas, though the commercial model is even more direct, and may exhibit a faster development compared to distributed energy, which is the reason for Bill Gate’s investment since it will substantially improve the life quality of those who live in remote regions. Nonetheless, the concept may be somewhat useless to developed countries with matured tap water system.
(Cover photo source: Zero Mass Water)