Magic, Sleight of Hand, or a Real Solution With Limitations?

Nov. 12, 2015

Half a year ago or so a PR firm sent me an article written by Keith White, the CEO of Ambient Water, with a request that I run it. I really have nothing against White or his company, and I’m going to share the article I was sent here on my blog today, but I want to first explain why I didn’t run it in the magazine.

My sense is that atmospheric water generation (AWG) technology has value for certain times and places, in modestly scaled applications. However, the article reads heavy with confidence, even swagger. Because this company makes claims about its technology being the solution to water stress and scarcity, I would not have been comfortably able to run it.

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Mr. White’s article proclaims:

Need a sustainable source of water that doesn’t draw from natural resources and fights one of the biggest issues faced on our world today? Turns out there’s a technology for that too—atmospheric water generation (AWG).

Atmospheric water generation extracts water directly from water vapor that exists in the very air we breathe, transforming humidity into an abundant source of clean water at or near the point of use/distribution.

Water in the atmosphere is on its way somewhere. It is also part of the ecology of a place. I’m sharing the article in its entirety below, and am interested in hearing from readers. I am not an expert and am not dismissing the technology per se. There are a few companies doing this and I have seen similar systems in operation. But promoting it as a large-scale solution while seemingly dismissing, in blanket fashion, other efforts to solve water scarcity without discussing any downsides, concerns me. If atmospheric water generation systems were to become widespread, how many would it take before the humidity level in the air in a given place would be negatively impacted? Each system is going to make a difference; the water being captured is not magically created even if it seems to be, but my point is when might that impact be disruptive to other parts of the water cycle? Now to the article:

Water is the world’s most abundant resource—70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in it—but it’s not always available in the areas where we need it. Just look at California and South America, where recent events have led to claims that those areas are running out of water.

The harsh reality is that we do have a water problem, but as this realism has started to set in, it’s also apparently that we have no real plan to fix it. Government officials are placing water restrictions on drought-stricken areas, while others preach conservation and vigilant usage. Will these efforts help? Sure. Will they be an ultimate solution to combat the scarcity issue we face? Doubtful.

When it comes to winning the war on water, it’s time to look toward the one constant that we lean on to solve most problems in today’s day and age—technology. 

An Innovative Solution

Our society is so advanced that we always seem to find a way to solve an issue through technology. Need to lock your doors from your phone? There’s an app for that. Want to create an exact replica of something? Let’s 3D print it. Need a sustainable source of water that doesn’t draw from natural resources and fights one of the biggest issues faced on our world today? Turns out there’s a technology for that, too—atmospheric water generation (AWG).

Atmospheric water generation extracts water directly from water vapor that exists in the very air we breathe, transforming humidity into an abundant source of clean water at or near the point of use/distribution. Using a refrigeration-based process, moist air is passed over a cold surface, which condenses the moisture into droplets that are captured, filtered, sterilized, and stored for use. The air is chilled to the dew point, and the moisture is condensed and filtered to the point of purity that it could be consumed.

Water is produced using 100 percent outside air, in areas with humidity levels as low as 40 percent. Most systems run on simple electricity, and only need modest maintenance consisting of filter changes and general cleaning, resulting in a simple “plug-and-play” water generator that for the most part operates and maintains itself.

Due to the flexibility of installation and the ease of use of the technology, atmospheric water generation has a variety of applications for residential and commercial use, as well as in more water intensive verticals like farming and oil & gas. The constant is a sustainable water source that doesn’t drain natural resources and can be utilized in multiple ways.


In terms of in-home residential use, there are smaller atmospheric water generators slightly bigger than a coffee maker that can produce several gallons of water a day for consumption. They can be purchased over the counter and begin producing water immediately.

Larger applications for residential and commercial would entail installing a bigger system on the roof of an apartment building or restaurant, creating your own on-site water source. When installing a system like this, you rid yourself of the need for excess piping, trucks to bring in water, etc., because you have your own private source always on hand.

Many of the systems available marry up with all of the roof curbs for all of the HVAC systems that are already out there, making it an easy install on the top of your building. Now you’ve got the convenience of creating water at the rooftop level and having gravity feed it down through an office tower or condo unit, piped into each individual suite.

Cold air is the byproduct of making the water though an atmospheric system. That cold air could be ducted into the building as well, providing cooling, without the need for additional energy consuming HVAC systems. When using hot water, the water is often heated from 50 degrees up to 130 degrees, using up a lot of energy to do so. With these rooftop units, you can take the heat you reject into the atmosphere, put it through a heat exchanger, and preheat the hot water through the boiler. Now you would only need to heat it from somewhere around 90 degrees to 130 degrees before use.

In areas where water usage restrictions are put in place, these atmospheric water generation systems can help to take a restaurant or apartment building “off the grid” because they have their own source of water, leaving residents and businesses feeling less of an impact.

Vertical Farming/Legalized Marijuana

Vertical farming has increased in popularity over the last several years as populations continue to explode in urban areas throughout the world, which coupled with challenges created by droughts, is expected to result in food scarcities. The World Resources Institute suggests the world population’s caloric intake requirements will be at least 69% larger in 2050 than today, so the need for fresh water resources to feed significant and diverse plant life becomes an essential part of the agricultural business.

While water is expected to be both recycled and optimized in terms of consumption and loss, atmospheric water generation solutions have been highlighted for their potential to provide water to a large number of crops within a small space. This is ideal for vertical farming, which is frequently found in warehouses, high-rises, and other buildings found within urban settings.

One such example is a vertical farm being built in New Buffalo, Michigan which recently reported in an article the savings of “98 percent less water per item of produce than traditional farming, accomplished in part by scavenging water from the grow room’s atmosphere with a dehumidifier,” referencing a humidity harnessing process common in atmospheric water generation. Other installations from organizations like BW Global and Ambient Water are in the works nationally, offering turnkey vertical farming solutions for growers who need water-efficient space for their crops.

In addition to providing fresh clean water, atmospheric water generation technologies can be used to regulate the temperature and humidity levels of the growing environment, which is extremely important for maximum yield of these crops. By enabling a closed system environment, traditional problems with venting and inadvertent introduction of pests can be avoided, achieving higher levels of production while minimizing the use of pesticides. The systems would produce significant volumes of water that could be fed to plants on grow-racks throughout the building as well as capture and recycle the humidity produced by the transpiration of the growing plants.

Aside from the growth of consumable produce, vertical farming and atmospheric water generation are in tandem a terrific resource for the water-intensive, legalized marijuana industry, which grew to $2.7 billion in 2014 and could rise to almost $11 billion by 2019.

Oil & Gas 

There are a host of potential applications for atmospheric water generation technology within the oil and gas industry, with the most notable being for fracking. It can take anywhere from three to five million gallons of water to frack a well, so there is an obvious concern considering many premium drilling locations are located in areas suffering from water scarcity.

Drilling mud also requires moderate use of water—up to 10-15,000 gallons per day—while steam and/or hot water are often used in some types of formations for separation of hydrocarbons from the mineral structure they are bound to. Then there is water injection, used to drive hydrocarbons to higher points in the formation for recovery.

In order to complete these operations, water is traditionally piped in from local lakes, ponds, or reserves, or trucked in from even further out of town. This can be incredibly expensive and time consuming, and can deplete water sources that are also relied upon to serve municipalities local to the drilling sites.

There is AWG equipment that can be set up on site early in the well development process, and the water that is accumulated can be stored in tanks or lined pits for later use in the fracking process. They could produce 400 gallons of water per day, with systems in development that could produce up to 20,000 gallons of water per day.

There are 35,000 wells being fracked in the United States each year, impacting local water supplies and exacerbating by the drought conditions that many areas around the country are facing. Utilizing this technology can easily supplement and in some cases, even replace the original source of water used to frack a well, preserving local water supplies and resources in a cost effective and sustainable manner.

In Need of Change

With so many water-intensive industries existing in a time of severe water scarcity issues, it’s clear that our society is in need of a solution with immediate impact. Innovation has long been what has pushed the boundaries in other industries—medicine, technology, travel—so finding a sustainable solution to water use should be no different.

Keith White is the CEO of Ambient Water, an atmospheric water generation technology company whose solutions produce water from the humidity in the air.

How applicable is this technology to dealing with drought and scarcity? Does it make sense to claim this technology “is a sustainable water source that doesn’t drain natural resources”? Please let us know what you think.
About the Author

Nancy Gross

Nancy Gross is a former editor of Business Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.