Innovative New Device Uses the Air to Create Drinking Water for 100 People a Day

iStock.com, dinadesign
iStock.com, dinadesign

Clean drinking water is one of the world's most vital resources. Humans can only survive a few days without water (compared to more than a month without food), and yet more than a billion people around the world live with water scarcity, either due to a lack of natural resources or poor water management. And climate change will likely only make the problem worse in the coming years. New technology, however, promises to cheaply create potable water from just air, Fast Company reports.

Two water-centric tech organizations, The Skysource and Skywater Alliance, teamed up to develop a shipping-container-enclosed device that can turn water vapor (i.e., humidity) into drinking water at a significantly cheaper rate than other, similar technology or techniques like desalination. The group's technique recently won the $1.50 million Water Abundance XPRIZE, a two-year competition devoted to coming up with energy-efficient ways to harvest fresh water from the air.

Women carrying water buckets on their heads walk past a shipping container.
The Skysource and Skywater Alliance, The Water Abundance XPRIZE

The competition required teams to create a device that could extract at least 2000 liters (528 gallons) a day from the atmosphere using renewable energy, at a cost of no more than 2 cents per liter. That would be enough to provide for about 100 people for $40 a day or less. In response to the challenge, the Skysource/Skywater Alliance team created WEDEW, or "wood-to-energy deployed water."

The system uses technology Skywater had already developed to pull water from the air. The Skywater machine essentially creates a man-made cloud inside it. It pulls in warm air from outside that, when it hits the refrigerated cold air inside the device, turns into condensation. That water can then be stored in connected tanks. The pre-existing technology required a lot of electricity, though, meaning it wasn't cheap.

The prize-winning version is powered by biogas, making it easy to operate almost anywhere. The biofuel gassifier creates renewable energy cheaply from cast-offs like wood chips, coconut shells, and dead plants, vaporizing the material to generate power. The system also generates a lot of heat, which is good for pulling water out of the air—think of how humid it is in the summer versus the winter. In the process of generating energy, the biogassifier also creates biochar, a type of charcoal that can improve soil fertility.

In places where biogas isn't a feasible option (like if there is no available wood or other fuel sources), the device could also be run on solar power or batteries.

[h/t Fast Company]

The Tree That Inspired Dr. Seuss's The Lorax Has Fallen Over

Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Truffula trees at the center of The Lorax may have been a product of Dr. Seuss's imagination, but it's believed they were inspired by a real-life tree in La Jolla, California. Nearly 50 years after the environmental parable was published, Smithsonian reports that the iconic Monterey cypress has fallen.

The tree had grown for 80 to 100 years in what is today Ellen Browning Scripps Park in Southern California. It was clearly visible from the observation tower where Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, lived in La Jolla following World War II.

While the children's book author and illustrator never stated that the tree inspired his work, locals started referring to it as "The Lorax Tree." The resemblance it bears to Seuss's Truffula is undeniable: Both have skinny trunks with whimsical curves and thick, fluffy canopies of foliage concentrated at the top.

In The Lorax, the Truffula trees are threatened by the Once-ler, who wants to chop them down and turn them into garments called Thneeds. The title character "speaks for the trees" and conveys the book's environmentalist message.

Unlike the Truffula, La Jolla's Monterey cypress appeared to be in no danger until it recently toppled over. Arborists aren't sure what caused the collapse, as they hadn't noticed any prior health issues with the tree except for some termites. The past year's uncharacteristically wet winter and the effect it had on the surrounding soil may have played a role, so experts are looking into that possibility.

Most of the tree has been removed from the area, and the city plans to plant another tree in its place. There are also plans to salvage and repurpose the trunk from the fallen tree, though they haven't been made official.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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