How a team of innovators overcame the odds to pull water from thin air


Today, 790 million people — 11 percent of the world’s population — live without access to clean water.

Two years ago, XPrize, an international nonprofit organization, announced a global competition enticing innovators to find a sustainable and affordable way to bring potable water to those who aren’t privileged enough to have it now.

Skeptics told the competition organizers that it was impossible. 

Nearly 100 submissions later, and XPrize found precisely what they were looking for — entrepreneurs who could design a minimalistic device that could reliably extract 2,000 liters of water from the atmosphere per day for no more than two cents per liter all using 100 percent renewable energy. 

This weekend, the organization announced the winners of the $1.5 million grand prize. 

Cape Town's reservoir is rapidly approaching day zero as the local reservoir runs out of water.

Cape Town’s reservoir is rapidly approaching day zero as the local reservoir runs out of water.

Image: earth observatory/nasa

Out of the 98 entries from 27 different countries, Skywater/Skysource Alliance — a team of sustainability experts from Venice Beach, California led by architect David Hertz and inventor Rich Groden — outlasted the competition, overcoming various obstacles to ultimately be selected as the prize winner. 

Zenia Tata, Chief Impact Officer at XPrize, said the challenges they faced were really meant to put the innovators to the test. 

Nothing hypothetical, incomplete, or dysfunctional was considered. They wouldn’t extend the timeframe, even if the mistakes were out of character for the team, and there were no exceptions.

“If you cannot win the race on game day, you cannot win the XPrize,” Tata said. The tight restrictions knocked out three of the five remaining finalists. 

In the week of final testing, where the goal was to run the device for 24 hours straight, the Skywater/Skysource Alliance pulled away from the other remaining competitor JMCC Wing (another American team who the judges initially believed would win) after the circuit breaker for the team’s windmill broke at the last minute. 

The winning device, called a Skywater machine, simulates the temperature at which dew formation is possible, creates water, and then filters it using very little energy. 

Hertz told XPrize that Skywater/Skysource was trying to change the relationship that the world has with water. 

“We believe water is a fundamental human right and should be decentralized, abundant, and democratized,” he said.

After a long dry summer, Manchester England's reservoir is suffering from low levels of water.

After a long dry summer, Manchester England’s reservoir is suffering from low levels of water.

Image: Getty Images/anthony devlin

A less advanced version of the product is actually already on the market and has been endorsed by many activists — like Miranda Kerr — who support the company’s commercial attempt to revolutionize water. 

The prize money is sure to help them continue in that effort. 

And though their contribution to clean water efforts is noteworthy in and of itself, Tata said the competition is just beginning.

She expects several of the inventions submitted to the competition will be successful on the market, once the entrepreneurs have more time, resources, and investors. 

“Now that we can share the proof that it can be done, we hope that we can crack open a new market. But we know it won’t happen overnight,” she said. 

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