Do you remember Uncle Owen’s “Water Harvesters” in Star Wars, Episode IV? Water was so scarce on Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, that they built machines that extracted water from the surrounding atmosphere, essentially making Uncle Owen a water farmer.
Back in 1977, when the movie came out, this was all science fiction. But in 2014, Engineering Professor Cody Friesen of ASU made it a reality when he founded Source, a company that makes panels that extract water from the air, just like Uncle Owen.
We, Westerners, take water for granted. Northern Europe is awash with it (no pun intended), as is the United States, which boasts more navigable inland waterways (13,000 miles) than the rest of the world combined (12,000 miles).
But that’s not true everywhere. We’re not just talking about the Sahara desert or the Arizona desert, 80% of China’s fresh water is undrinkable, due to off-the-scale levels of pollution.
According to Professor Friesen who was featured on the How I Built This Podcast, there is as much water in the Earth’s atmosphere as there is in one of our oceans, so learning how to tap into it will give us an extra ocean’s worth of water.
It’s an interesting idea, however, it does beg the question, how much water can we extract from the atmosphere while still having access to the good stuff, like rain, photosynthesis, and the ability to breathe?
That’s the trouble with innovation. Once you get an idea, it’s tempting to charge ahead at full speed, especially when the possible consequences are both unknown and far off. We seem to be dealing with that a lot at the moment (cue: A.I. and deep-sea mining).
The other issue with innovation is that it doesn’t just happen simply because you wrote a big check and need to show some ROI.
No, there has to not only be a certain level of necessity but a great deal of individual curiosity. As a professor, Friesen spent years thinking about this issue and possible solutions long before he got the idea to start a business and long before the demand for a solution became large enough to generate any major interest.
In other words, you have to have something that you care about so deeply that it makes you willing to go the extra mile to bring water to the desert. But, it’s not a bad way to spend a life.